Review ·

If the music of Pavement seems dated in 2010, don't worry; there's nothing you're "not getting." Despite being one of the more heralded American rock bands of the 1990s, Pavement's influence was primarily on a narrow American subculture, and not on American culture at large. Most Gen Y'ers (those born 1981 or later) are too young to remember Pavement at their peak. The fact that Pavement's reunion has drawn unprecedented ticket sales in ways more popular bands of the era have not says more about the dominance of Generation X tastes of Generation Y music fans than about the music of Pavement itself.  

 

After punk "broke" with the success of Nirvana's Nevermind, holdovers from the 1980s underground were switching to the major labels in the early '90s. Those holdovers included, among others, the Offspring, the Goo Goo Dolls, and Chumbawumba. Needless to say, in the fiercely competitive major-label world, most of these bands struggled to match the artistic quality of their independent-label work.

 

Meanwhile, Pavement was just coming into its own on Matador Records (which, two decades later, remains the reigning champion of indie labels). In love with the underproduced albums that came out of the '80s underground by necessity, the members of Pavement eschewed major-label overproduction by turning "lo-fi" into an artistic battle cry. The band managed to stake out a financially stable career outside the major-label structure, and an almost undying adoration from music critics and High Fidelity-style rock snobs ensued. By the time grunge was fading, Stephen Malkmus's lyrics were just starting to turn to the major-label stars, mocking everyone from Kurt Cobain hangers-on to Billy Corgan and to the corporate entities that few other indie musicians were so willing to mock, let alone so coyly. 

 

Pavement shared the same core influences as Nirvana did (Velvet Underground, Joy Division, Pixies), but where Cobain turned to the twisted guitar heroics of Scratch Acid, Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth in a verse-chorus-verse setting, Malkmus turned to the twisted songwriting of the Fall, Pere Ubu, and Can. This made Pavement less of a pop sensation but no less of a source of critical love. Through prolific, consistent recording, Pavement became the leaders of a younger bunch of Generation X indie fans, burnt out by the abuses of the majors. 

 

Quarantine the Past, a "best of" compilation designed for those who didn't experience the band at the right age (a group that is now well out of college), attempts to put the band's best musical face forward. The track listing is purposely anachronous, and in pure indie logic, the compilation is named after something that Malkmus claims, on opening track "Gold Soundz," can never be done. Quarantine the Past focuses mostly on 1994's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, the album that has held up best over time, and features only four of the poppier songs from the band's 1992 debut, the nearly undisputed masterpiece called Slanted and Enchanted. It also cuts away the chaff of Wowee Zowee (1995), Brighten the Corners (1997), and Terror Twilight (1999), of which there was a lot.

 

Quarantine the Past notably excludes fan favorites of the Slanted and Enchanted era, such as "Conduit for Sale!," "Zurich Is Stained" and "Perfume-V," which were seen as essential both in the context of early-'90s commodified dissent and in Pavement's particular innovations. Through hindsight and MP3s, however, those innovations seem less substantial. The Fall's Mark E. Smith, already notorious for shooting his mouth off, lost a lot of indie support in the '90s for constantly saying that Pavement had ripped him off. In fact, most of the weirder songs that were left out of this compilation do, in fact, sound like lesser variations of everything from Live at the Witch Trials to Hex Enduction Hour to The Nation's Saving Grace. Unfortunately, cutting those tracks weakens the ability of Quarantine the Past to make a succinct case for Pavement's beloved quirks.

 

Musical innovations aside, it's difficult to dispute that Pavement changed the framework of the music industry like few bands in rock history have. After the success of Liz Phair, Beck and Radiohead, the influence of Pavement's transformation of lo-fi indie rock from a necessity to an aesthetic -- and "indie rock" from a business term into a genre -- was incalcuable. The band broke up in 1999, well after they had peaked but before they had made a truly bad record, thus preserving their artistic legacy.

 

Suffice to say, indie-rock fans who were 18 in 1992 are 36 now, which is prime aging-hipster territory unless a paycheck is drawn from producing, promoting, or covering music. But it also makes an otherwise solid bunch of songs seem preposterously overrated to anyone who wasn't there for their original run, and it forces Pavement into the same type of subculture scrutiny they were instrumental in creating. Despite the band's attempt to "Fight This Generation" in the mid-'90s, Pavement's legacy shows just how exclusive a subculture can be regardless of its internal intent -- and how confusing that can seem to those outside.

 

  • Gold Soundz (Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain)
  • Frontwards (Watery, Domestic EP)
  • Mellow Jazz Docent (Perfect Sound Forever EP)
  • Stereo (Brighten the Corners)
  • In the Mouth a Desert (Slanted & Enchanted)
  • Two States (Slanted & Enchanted)
  • Cut Your Hair (Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain)
  • Shady Lane / J Vs. S (Brighten the Corners)
  • Here (Slanted & Enchanted)
  • Unfair (Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain)
  • Grounded (Wowee Zowee)
  • Summer Babe (Winter Version) (Slanted & Enchanted)
  • Range Life (Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain)
  • Date w/ IKEA (Brighten the Corners)
  • Debris Slide (Perfect Sound Forever EP)
  • Shoot the Singer (1 Sick Verse) (Watery, Domestic EP)
  • Spit on a Stranger (Terror Twilight)
  • Heaven Is a Truck (Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain)
  • Trigger Cut/Wounded-Kite at :17 (Slanted and Enchanted)
  • Embassy Row (Brighten the Corners)
  • Box Elder (Slay Tracks 1933-1969 EP)
  • Unseen Power of the Picket Fence (No Alternative compilation)
  • Fight This Generation (Wowee Zowee)

It seems inconceivable now, but in the very near future some unsuspecting youngster will be having his or her (but c'mon, probably his) mind blown by "Summer Babe" and "Gold Soundz" without even having to switch albums.  Sure, greatest hits albums are for housewives and little girls, but in a world where both Bruce Willis' and Shaquille O'Neil's musical vanity projects have "Best of" records, why shouldn't Stephen Malkmus & Co.? Even if you've already got all the albums, you could do a lot worse than having 23 career-spanning Pavement tracks at your fingertips, right?

Dr. Dog - Shame, Shame Black Rebel Motorcycle Club Beat the Devil's Tattoo

the thing about hits comps is that they're not made for people who know the music. fans always bicker over what should/shouldn't be included and nobody wins. you wanted more slanted (which is more poppy than quirky in retrospect). i wanted more wowee (classic record! don't hate). if someone wants either record, they're out there. the point of hits comps is to softly introduce strangers to the music, not to assess the entire career and personality of the band. what's on it is great, what's not on it is also great. let newbies find that out through discovery.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/LongestWinter/moonjpg.jpg CraigJenkins

I'm 29 but know a lot of younger Pavement fans. I also don't buy the generation gap theory because there's always been some division over Pavement - yes, the major critics were always on board, but I've known many music lovers who just didn't dig them. They have enough eccentricities - epically complex melodies/lyric sheets, Dylanesque intonation, the loping rhythm section, fractured humor - that make it easy to see why they're not everyone's bag.

E.J.

Your theory is completely flawed. If it were true, why would anyone younger than 50 care about Velvet Underground? Nobody under 35 would care about the Pixies and no one under 25 would give a $#!+ about the Breeders. Music, created these days, is derived from anything that came before it, either by following the predecessors or moving in a different direction. There are plenty of bands who followed Pavement as an influence. You probably enjoy some of those bands.

Ab

This is one of best reviews I've read on Prefix in a long time. Great work. Although I don't agree with every point you make, you make them all well. Kudos to you sir.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/MFB/profilepicjpg.jpg MFB

Having been in college during Pavement's heyday, I'll say that your review isn't exactly how it happened. But it's not a bad approximation. I guess this is how folklore begins...

LKJ

"A lot of chaff" on Pavement's albums? I don't think many people are going to go along with you there. Pavement has something in common with the Velvet Underground and Nick Drake: only a handful of albums, and each one of them essential. Look, if you're going to debunk Pavement--not a very noble undertaking, by the way--you're going to need to do a better job of it than simply sketching out an imaginary world in which most of their albums don't even "hold up" but at least are "not truly bad." How does "bad" even come into the picture here? I'm sorry, but this is either a very obtuse piece of writing or a very disingenuous one.

JGC

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