"Show me / A word that rhymes with Pavement / And I won't kill your parents / And roast them on a spit."
One of the most distinctive and original rock bands of the 1990s, Pavement were formed in Stockton, California, in 1989 by guitarist Scott Kannberg (better known as Spiral Stairs), and the redoubtable Stephen Malkmus, who handled most of the singing and songwriting duties.
Recorded at Louder Than You Think studios, the garage of local punk hero and drummer Gary Young, their first release, on their own Treble Kicker label, was the Slay Tracks (1933-1969) EP. Named for a shooting in a Stockton school on the day of recording, it was a diverting, occasionally touching, 15 minutes of uncompromising lo-fi angst and guitar screeching. Two further EPs, Demolition Plot J-7 and Perfect Sound Forever, followed in the ensuing two years, continuing more or less the same theme. These early records, if patchy and at times unlistenable, contained numerous fine songs, among them the lo-fi pop of "Box Elder", the wonderfully chaotic "Forklift", the Pixies-influenced garage rock of "Debris Slide", and the dead-eyed emotion of "Home" and "Perfect Depth".
Better yet was the simple but impassioned single "Summer Babe", the undoubted Pavement anthem, which provided a perfect introduction to the debut album Slanted and Enchanted. Released on Matador Records in 1992, the album was a lo-fi landmark. Although dominated by the fuzzy, dissonant guitar work, many of the songs also showed an acute sense of melody, emotion, and lyrical brilliance, particularly "Summer Babe", "Here" and the classic "Trigger Cut". An uncredited bassist and extra percussionist (Mark Ibold and Bob Nastanovich) were called in to add depth to the sound, and to hide Gary Young's more obvious drumming limitations. All in all it was one of the best records of 1992, and saw Pavement's popularity increasing to closer match their critical acclaim.
The following months entailed the release of a new EP, Watery Domestic, a compilation of their early EPs entitled Westing (By Musket and Sextant), and the departure of Gary Young. The notoriously unhinged drummer was getting unhappy with the band and eventually quit, or was fired, depending on who you believe; he was replaced by Malkmus' childhood friend Steve West. Meanwhile, Ibold and Nastanovich joined the band full-time; while Ibold garnered a reputation as the ladies' man of the band, the loveable Nastanovich became a fan favourite.
West's arrival coincided with the maturity of Pavement's sound to a more accessible, thoughtful and well-recorded level, as displayed on the second album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994) - perhaps their best record. The energy and emotion were still there but the songs were more subtle and diverse - "Cut Your Hair" was Pavement's first pure pop moment, and an MTV hit. The album also featured slower songs such as the bleak "Newark Wilder", and one of their all-time classics, the countryfied "Range Life". A lyric from that song, "Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins / Nature kids, I/they don't have no function / I don't understand what they mean and I couldn't really give a fuck", landed Pavement in some trouble with Pumpkins singer Billy Corgan. Although the affair never reached its true rock star feud potential, Pavement later got their just deserts on that year's disastrous Lollapalooza tour, where the negative reaction of the West Virginia crowd (a barrage of rocks, no less) forced the visibly upset band members off stage.
Pavement weren't ready to rest and the third album came out in 1995. Over the course of its 18 tracks, Wowee Zowee showed a more mellow, personal, sometimes Neil Young-influenced sound, although the album was again musically diverse. There was no repeat of "Cut Your Hair" this time round - the songs were more oblique and unusual, often featuring desperately sad, feedback-drenched guitar and wistful melodies, and occasional pieces of largely instrumental music. It took a few listens to become accustomed, but it was another great album. The best songs were the most poignant: "We Dance", "Black Out", "Grounded", and "Father to a Sister of Thought", the last of which was also the most accessible on the album and contained some classic steel guitar breaks. It wasn't all drawn-out depression though - the penchant for screechy vocals continued on some tracks, and while "Flux = Rad" was pure grunge to rival anything on their early releases, there was also a noticeable element of silliness epitomised by "Brinx Job" and "Serpentine Pad". Wowee Zowee was accused by some fans and sections of the media of being too sprawling and incoherent, and indeed at times it was, but it was a record that proved they had a mellow, creative side to their musical vision.
Pavement took it more slowly after that album, the band members starting to focus more on other interests and musical projects. 1996 saw the release of the somewhat lazy Pacific Trim EP, but things improved the following year with the album Brighten the Corners. Opening with the storming single "Stereo", structured around spoken/shouted wise-guy lyrics, it was a sharp, focused affair. "Shady Lane" was a slice of catchy guitar pop, continuing the theme of quasi-serious lyrics, and the album featured many more well-balanced blends of biting words, catchy tunes and weirdness. Also notable was a great contribution from Scott, "Date w/IKEA", with melodic but distorted vocals topped with a stunning guitar solo, and also the beautifully bleak closer, "Fin". (Which was also known as "Infinite Spark": Pavement never could work out what half their songs were called.) Again there was criticism of what were claimed to be superfluous songs, but nevertheless it was a successful and confident return to the territory of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.
To non-fans, however, some of the songs on Brighten the Corners were just further evidence of Pavement's quarted-assed approach to music. Right from the early days of their baffling lo-fi sounds and bizarre song titles (what the hell is a "Krell-Vid User"?), through the band's apparent laziness and lack of musical finesse, to Malkmus' wise-guy lyrics and uncomfortable interview technique, Pavement had been seen by some as a deliberately oblique, no-talent "slacker" band. Their reputation as self-indulgent middle-class Californians (even though the band came from all over the U.S.) obscured, from many people, the genuine talent and earnestness the band possessed. Spiral Stairs' songs were on the whole less likely than Malkmus' to invite claims of overbearing smugness, but he was restricted to b-sides and one or two songs per album.
Through 1997 and 1998, as the months passed, rumours started to abound of a Pavement split. Media reports seemed to suggest that their heart was no longer in it, but the band's insistence that there would be a fifth album was confirmed with the release of Terror Twilight (1999). This was by far the gentlest record they ever made, the eleven songs combining the old Pavement ways with a new penchant for folksy influences and catchy melodies. The singles "Major Leagues" and "Spit on a Stranger" were gentle, tuneful ballads and songs like "Folk Jam" and "Speak, See, Remember" provided the folk contribution. Meanwhile, the third single, "Carrot Rope", was another catchy tune and a fitting closer to what was to be their final record. The album drew great critical acclaim for being both accessible and enduring, although some old-time fans were angered by the idea of Pavement going pop.
A few months after the release, the prophecies of a split came true, although the process was a slow and messy one. In the autumn of 1999 Pavement announced their decision to split "for the foreseeable future", and played their final gig, at London's Brixton Academy. Over the next year it became apparent from interviews and from the band's other musical projects (Stephen Malkmus with the Jicks, Scott Kannberg with Preston School of Industry) that the reunion wasn't going to happen.
Not the most auspicious way for a band to break up, and with hindsight Pavement may ultimately have been a band more influenced than influential. But they were a better band than many people appreciate. From the start, the indirectness of their music and the difficult interview style of Stephen Malkmus gave them a reputation as sardonic slackers with no serious interest in writing good music. This was undoubtedly one element to the band, but they really did write some great songs; lo-fi, hi-fi, happy, depressed, serious and joky. In any case, they leave behind a quintet of excellent albums and some of the decade's defining indie-rock singles, as well as a surprisingly large and hugely underappreciated catalogue of b-sides, imports and other songs not on any of their "main" records.
Update Autumn 2002: Slow Century, the DVD which many years ago was announced by Matador and then almost immediately relegated to the position of "will probably never come out", has finally come out. Featuring all their videos, some live performances, a 90-minute documentary, and Various Other Things, this has some great material if a confusing layout. Slanted and Enchanted has also been re-released in "deluxe" format, as a 2-CD with added tracks. Check it all out at www.matadorrecords.com.
Bands in the family: Stephen Malkmus/The Jicks, Silver Jews, Preston School of Industry
This writeup is based on an entry I originally wrote for h2g2 in the Autumn of 2000, which may or may not still be online somewhere.