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.