ONLINE - ISSUE 17
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Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: LA's Desert Origins (Matador, Ole 610 2xcd)
When I was in college, Pavement was truly one of the very few bands that mattered, a band that offered a Grand Unification Theory of underground music. Pavement's stew embraced history, riff, melody, energy, sound-as-sound, songcraft, wit, wordplay, and poetry. Somehow Pavement's self-awareness transcended their nerdiness, making their gestures work on the most basic emotional level. Through 1992's Watery, Domestic EP, each one of their records staked a claim to greatness, and each one of their songs, even the noise segments used as segues, radiated pure with brilliance. And their four EPs, one LP, and a couple of b-sides all fit on one C-90 tape like it was preordained.
Looking back, I can see why I might have had trouble accepting a new Pavement record into my divinely ordered musical world. But at the same time I had no trouble at all loving the Silver Jews side-project, which fired back at the critics who mislabeled Pavement leaders of the lo-fi movement (they recorded in a home studio and with minimal production like reverb and compression, but nonetheless on sixteen tracks—I call this mid-fi) by recording on a boom box. And I considered the most recent emissions from Planet Pavement, the b-sides of the Trigger Cut seven-inch and the EP Watery, Domestic, to be perhaps their most affecting releases. So I won't admit I was fated to ambivalence about Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain when it was released in the spring of my senior year.
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was a semiotician's wet dream. Meant as a vehicle to marketplace success and simultaneously as an answer record to the hip priests (and the hip priests inside themselves) who would cry sell out, the album was a meditation on the band's anticipatory anxiety about smoothing their sound and making it big. How does a band that constructed itself around the secret knowledge of back roads feel about entering the mainstream? Nostalgic for their old Gold Sounds.
Musically, Pavement's trajectory was emplotted by its record titles. I'll name them in order, and you can do the math: Slay Tracks, Demolition Plot, Perfect Sound Forever, Slanted and Enchanted, and Watery, Domestic. To my ears, the four perfect songs of Watery, Domestic offered a less slanted but no less enchanted synthesis of melodic grace and bohemian panache, and I wanted more of the same from the next full-length. Pavement's tack, on the other hand, was revealed by the pre-album single which covered REM's "Camera." REM? I hoped it was ironic. It was, to my dismay, only half-ironic.
That said, what Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain really represents sonically is California. Ironically, in the liner notes to the expanded 10th anniversary edition, leader Stephen Malkmus says it's a New York album, recorded in a crappy studio on the West Side. But perhaps exile brought out the California in the songs all the more, while conversely the bands' prior recordings made in their Stockton, CA stomping grounds sound East Village. Sunny California pop is written all over the record, just as California imagery pervades the lyrics ("range roving with the cinema stars," and "we've got deserts, we've got trees/we've got the hills of Beverly" for two examples). The grooves offered several versions of a California aesthetic, from the soaring pop of "Gold Sounds," "Elevate Me Later" and the MTV-hit "Cut Your Hair" and the hippie progressivism of the Can lift in the instrumental section of "Stop Breathin'," to the singer-songwriter existential country of "Range Life." And perhaps most tellingly, they covered Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" as "5-4=Unity." Who was Dave Brubeck to arty noise rock band graduating to MTV? Just a brainy California nerd who made the jump from the independent Fantasy Records to major label Columbia with the hit Take Five, expanding his audience of college intellectuals while earning scorn from bohemians for his too smooth, too emotionally detached cool version of jazz. Or in other words, the blueprint of the marketing plan for Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, released on formerly independent Matador, newly staked and distributed by major label Atlantic (in a deal that didn't last long).
This was self-awareness taken to new heights. It's one thing to be conscious of history, but it seemed like the past was weighing like a nightmare on my heroes. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was the indie version of the Kinks' Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround's story of the perils of pop stardom which restored agency to the band only to drown them in a crushing ambivalence about their choice. In Silence Kit, the album opens with our bohemian hero taking his pawn shop aesthetic and his graceful tongue on the road, lavishing in the attention of the press, but in the end merely "screwing my self with my hand." "Elevate Me Later" essays the singer's ambivalence about the entertainment business and his role in it ("there's forty different shades of black/so many fortresses and ways to attack.") "Stop Breathin'" imagines fame as death and art in that context as "call and response in the negative home." The MTV single "Cut Your Hair" puckishly attacks the importance of looks in the music market ("did you see the drummer's hair?"), leaving the band with "tension and fame, a career." "Unfair" aims sarcastic derision at California but admits "this is the slow sick sucking part of me." "Gold Sounds" offers the easiest lyric on the record, "keep my address to myself ‘cause we need secrets/we need secrets back right now." "Range Life" parodies the macho rambler archetype and agrees pop stars like Stone Temple Pilots deserve no more than our singer. "Heaven is a Truck" uses the Rose Bowl Parade as a metaphor for the fishbowl of fame and asks for release.
The two closers really make the record for me. "Hit the Plane Down" is one of guitarist Scott Kannberg's patented "Fall" grooves, built around a simple bass riff that repeats to infinity. Referring back to Buddy Holly, whose "Everyday" was lifted for the vocal melody of "Silence Kit," it recasts one of the signal moments in rock history, the tragic crash of a plane carrying Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, which as lore has it left a musical void filled by empty teen idols in place of the fallen true rockers. Here the crash is imagined as an intentional and metaphorical cooptation: "Taking over your life/Taking over your scene/taking everything." The epic "Fillmore Jive" similarly says "goodnight to the rock and roll era," but this time with an anguish, indeterminacy, and serious play missing from the rest of the album. In the first section, our singer, worn out from the excesses of the rock'n'roll lifestyle, passes out on a couch, lamenting over and over "I need to sleep… why won't you let me sleep" in the most distinctive cadences on the record. He awakes to chart his alienation from the subcultures of an atomized music scene, from the jam kids on their vespas, to the punks with their spikes, the rockers with their long curly locks, and the dance faction ("a little too loose for me"). Despite outward appearances of chaos and laws broken, the truth of the rock'n'roll scene is "every night the straight and narrow… round and round and round and round she goes." And finally, in the clichéd ending of the rock show, the band "pull out their plugs and snort up the drugs." Musically, Fillmore Jive doesn't sound too much like Pavement, with its heavy, meandering, alterna-guitar hero sections, but on the other hand it's also filled with a pathos that was a band staple everywhere in the band's catalog except in Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. If you need proof, just listen to some of the singles and b-sides included on this disk and recorded at the same sessions, like Strings of Nashville.
"Is it a crisis or a boring change?" the band asked in Gold Sounds. The temptation is to answer, "Who cares?" The line, like the album itself, contains all the vices that critics attribute to the band. Self-centered, self-indulgent, meta, ironic, disengaged, glib. And for a long time, I considered Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain a misplacement of Pavement's talents. I could ease into its musical slipstream, carried along by its pop thrills, but I would often question whether the record had enough of the soul that I love about the band. In addition to pathos, the songs lacked a sense of punk panache, the gestural traction so obvious on the bonus single that came with the first 5000 copies of the record, on the Silver Jew's Arizona Record, and throughout the Pavement catalog, the ability to invest a few chords and noises with a sense of joyful existential play or weighty angst. Haunted by the music scene's past and present, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was at once Pavement's sunniest and most detached music. And besides, I'm sick of records where a band hits it big and follows up with a record about the perils of success. It was no solace that Pavement wrote that record before they actually made it big.
For all that, there is no denying the greatness of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Supreme intelligence, both musical and verbal, pervades every second of it, and you just have to sit back and admire its construction. While to fully interpret the record requires knowledge of the entire history of postwar popular music, that doesn't mean the record doesn't make it on the most basic rock 'n roll level. In 2004, I guess I'm not so invested in a specific Pavement record being the end-all of Pavement records. So while I miss the punk sense of play in the songs on the Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, taken as a whole the album does comprise joyful existential play. It is devilishly ironic to break out on MTV with a song about the superficiality of the pop audience. And it's devilishly ironic to answer critics' unfair charges of ironic detachment with an album of supreme ironic detachment, premised on feelings of inauthenticity, no less. So on an intellectual level I have to give Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain a pass, and that allows me to be more open to its musical moves than I was in the past. I like art which works honestly, and Pavement were concerned with the meaning of their art in mass culture, so they wrote a record about it, and somewhere in all their sophisticated manipulation of cultural symbols there is indeed an honesty that I can now fully credit. I still don't like it as much as the compilation of their early EPs Westing (by Musket and Sextant) (Drag City), Brighten the Corners, or Slanted and Enchanted, or probably even Wowee Zowee (all Matador), but that's like saying I don't like Othello quite as much as Hamlet or The Tempest. This is art at its very highest level.
The new tenth anniversary edition comprises two discs and lists for $14, a bargain. The first disc contains the full original album and all the singles and compilation tracks from the Crooked Rain sessions, remastered at SAE (my preference would have been Golden, the best for indie rock, geographically appropriate, and a great pun besides). That includes the b-sides of the pre-album teaser "Cut Your Hair," subsequent Gold Sounds singles, the bonus single that came with the first 5000 LPs pressed ("Haunt You Down/Jam Kids"), the No Alternative contribution (this one explicitly about REM's career—"Time After Time was my least favorite song!"), and the contribution to Hey Drag City. Unlike the bonus cuts on the similarly repackaged Slanted and Enchanted: Luxe and Reduxe set from 2002, there is nothing here that is absolutely essential. However most of the 12 tracks are excellent, and their inclusion makes this set a bargain. The second disc contains eight demos for Crooked Rain recorded with and by original drummer Gary Young, who left the band before the sessions, three of which that made the album, one that made Wowee Zowee, and four otherwise unheard tunes, the best of which is "Same Way of Saying." Sound on these is gritty, and the takes are not as smooth, which makes for interesting listening, particularly on "Range Life," which is stiffer and more country, in a good way. The original version of "Elevate Me Later," titled "Ell Ess Two" (as in Loretta's Scars 2, for that's where the bass line is from) shows Malkmus' writing process. This version is more explicit about Pavement's label negotiations ("If you fish in a man-made lake/Might as well fish in a jacuzzi"). Then we get 12 outtakes from the Crooked Rain sessions, some of which are hi-fi, some demo quality, including some more tunes for Wowee Zowee, and the charming "Rug Rat." Finally, a 4 song Peel Session. I don't want to say "for fans only," so I won't. But definitely the Odds and Sods.
The mastering allows you to hear deeper into the mix than the prior CD version, to pick out things like the organ swirls in Fillmore Jive, and is a bit more controlled in the kick drum. This is not a great sounding record, but its pretty good, certainly no cause for embarrassment on an audiophile big rig. I won't comment on the vinyl since my turntable is out of commission at the moment. A couple of complaints: the last track of the album and the first b-side have almost no time between them, which given the gravitas of the end of Fillmore Jive is a major blunder. There should have been at least five seconds. Second, I would have sequenced the bonus seven inch immediately after the album because a) it came with the album, b) the mood is better in keeping with the end of the album, and c) they were recorded earlier than the b-sides.