Pavement: Perfect Sound Forever

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Pavement was one of the most influential bands of the 90’s. But they were also one of the hardest to define. Indeed the term most critics gave them were ‘slackers’. This wasn’t used derogatorily but more in reference to their seeming indifference to musical customs and commercial ambition.

The band formed on the cusp of a prosperous decade but also when the American cult legends of the 80’s were folding. They originated from the wealthy suburbs of Stockton, California and had mingled with the West Coast surfer punk talent such as Black Flag. However, the band did not possess the same intimidation or politics of their punk predecessors. They incorporated the same energy and abrasive lo-fi jangles but replaced the mosh-pit mindset with a more laid-back and layered approach, influenced by the Velvet Underground and R.E.M.

I was blessed to have a very hip English teacher at secondary school who introduced me to these  figures. I enjoyed one of their most popular songs “Summer Babe” and, with my teacher’s advice, decided to give the band some long-term attention. However, as many would agree, on the first listen they are not instantly likeable. The lyrics are often nonsensical; Stephen Malkmus’ (the lead singer) adolescent voice is not always mellifluous; and often the songs seemed to lack control, with little verse structure and few choruses. Yet upon further listening it was how these aspects came together that made me love them. For Malkmus did not have the huskiness of Kurt Cobain or uninterested coolness of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Instead he disregarded his vocal capability and stretched out his sounds to their ultimate capacity, which made them achieve an enduring sincerity which make them surprisingly listenable. With this sincerity Malkmus gives such weight and feeling to the words that they gain deep meaning. Often it encompasses a song’s poignant naivety such as in the love-song ‘Here”: “And I’m the only one who laughs, at your jokes when they are so bad, and your jokes are always bad” and the nostalgic ‘Gold Soundz’ “So drunk in the August sun. And you’re the kind of girl I like”. However my consistent reaction is that I have no idea what the lyrics mean, but I wish I had thought of them myself. Take for instance the jewel in Zurich is Stained “You think it’s easy but you’re wrong, I am not one half of the problem, Zurich is stained and it’s not my fault.” However, the songs were never concrete and throughout live acts Malkmus would incorporate new lines into his music. Indeed it was this fluidity that Pavement possessed, which made them so enjoyable as well as elusive. They were able to move effortlessly between genres such as country in “Father to a Sister of Thought”, punk in “Best Friend’s Arm, folk in “Folk Jam” and even rap in “Sutcliffe Catering Song”, while still preserving that indelible Pavement sound. This was partly the reason why they never were commercially successful. For despite MTV screen time for their single “Cut Your Hair”, few other songs stood out as the 90’s anthems, as opposed to those of Weezer or Nirvana. Instead, each song has its own individual sound while still remaining representative of the album or EP. In fact it was when Pavement were forced to approach maturity and take responsibility for their musical direction, that they went into decline. Their music no longer contained the infinite possibilities or the former energy, and instead became sedate though still enjoyable songs. Indeed when they had to exercise control the band members no longer felt their freedom, which climaxed with Stephen Malkmus conducting his last gigs with handcuffs chained to his microphone.

Pavement made five albums between 1989 and 1999. Their debut Slanted and Enchanted is perhaps their most celebrated album, which is their loudest and bursting with the urge to say something. And though it reflects the boredom and anger of their generation, Robert Christgau perhaps puts it best in saying that it “Yielded a message complex enough to offer hope”. The second album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, is their most accessible, perhaps because of the replacement of the legendary but erratic drummer Gary Young with the more classic style of Steve West. It reflects Pavement at the peak of their abilities with no sign of crumbling. Their third album Wowee Zowee is perhaps a reaction to their growing popularity by pushing their music’s boundaries even further. This of course resulted in a few flops but also some works of genius such as “Grounded” and “AT&T”, which many fans would consider their ideal of Pavement. Brighten the Corners was Pavement’s effort in adapting to their aging. The songs still possess the fun of being Pavement, but the pace is slower and their instruments are a little too in tune for their style. Come Terror Twilight, the music, though still entertaining, had more or less become a solo effort by Malkmus and was a forerunner for his musical direction as a solo artist. The band also produced many EPs throughout their time, including Perfect Sound Forever, that helped bridge together the albums as well as provide some Pavement classics such as “Frontwards” and my personal favourite “All My Friends”. What should also be acknowledged is that their music was certainly a group effort. Scott Kannberg the guitarist, and Malkmus’ childhood friend,  contributed  several songs, which provided a simpler and often catchy relief to Malkmus’ complexities. Bob Nastanovich, the percussionist, background howler and sometime-manager of the band also gave much insight into the band’s direction. He was also the inspiration for Damon Albarn’s ‘Woohoo!’ in Blur’s “Song 2”.

Pavement may perhaps remain a largely unrecognised band, as Malkmus was certainly aware of when he sang “But no one will dance with us, in this zany town”. They may be too toneless to receive popular acclaim and not ironic enough to be embraced by the hipsters. Even their clothing shows no sign of any personal identity. However, as much as their cult followers would like to keep it this way, this is not true. Their influence permeates through many band’s use of nonsensical lyrics and detuned sound, most notably Animal Collective. And many groups pay overt homage to their legacy, such as Broken Social Scene’s “Ibi dreams of Pavement”, and the National’s lyric “praying for Pavement to get back together”. The band also conducted a successful reunion tour in 2010, which I unfortunately could not attend. And though there probably won’t be another album, Pavement inspires a modern sense of freedom in music and identity, and shows us how such an imperfect set of people could create such a Perfect Sound Forever.

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