Distilling a band with a pleasingly concise string of 5 great albums (let alone a plethora of B-sides that far outshine most their contemporaries work) down to 10 representative tracks is nigh on impossible. Especially for a band with such personal significance to me. I want everyone to listen to ALL of their songs and be awed by the genius; obviously, that won’t happen, thanks to damn individuality, subjective personality and ‘unique points of view’. Jeez, thanks reason. What I will aim to do then is pick out the 10 songs I think anyone (everyone…) with a passing interest in this merry band of slacker oddballs, lead by the prince of extraordinary/ordinary artistic crossover Stephen Malkmus, should listen to RIGHT NOW. This could well be your next favourite band. I know that I, now my interest has been piqued, have fallen into obsessive fandom abyss.
Like 20 years too late.
But, in a sense, this makes it easier. The entire back catalogue is there for me to peruse and fawn over like the giddy insecure young man with a contrived perspective on life that I am. Malkmus is a genius. Naysayers will claim his lyrics are lazy and don’t make sense, but to me they do. And that’s all I care about. And I know there are many, many more people out there like me. Only he and Thom Yorke manage to hit the nail on the emotional head for my liking. Whilst Yorke is more cerebral, Malkmus draws in the essence of the idiosyncrasies, absurdities, and everyday plainness that life has to offer, and expels it all over the chaotic music he orchestrates in imminently repeatable sound bite mantras. Watching the way he plays the guitar is mesmeric and, without being too dramatic, almost Hendrixesque in the way he utilises the machine as though it’s an extensive of himself. But it is not all down to one man, Spiral Stairs is a willing Robin to S.M’s Batman, Bob Nastanovich is the personification of the group in general, especially when let loose on percussion, sound effects and “vocals” live. Finally, Steve West and Mark Ibold anchor the crazy (where ex-drummer Gary Young let it consume him). Enough lionising now. Onto the tracks.
Shady Lane – ‘Brighten the Corners’
The compulsory song-that-first-got-me-into-the-band that all list-style personal artist explorations require. My dad is a pretty big influence on my musical tastes, and he’d been banging on at me to listen to this ‘weird ‘90s band’ for ages- in fact, he’d already played me some of Malkmus’ solo stuff, which was pleasant albeit a little clean cut. Eventually, ‘Shady Lane’ made it into the rotation of our ‘long-family-drive’ playlist and the chiming guitars and honest but playful vocals started to make an impression. It became tantalising enough to start listening through to the album it was a part of, ‘Brighten the Corners’. From then on, I was hooked- how could a guitar played in that style, drums ambling along so lazily, and semi-spoken, semi-sensical vocals form such infectious tracks? Thus, ‘Shady Lane’ proved to be the perfect gateway track, so I too would advocate it as a potential starting point in this particular lo-fi odyssey.
Gold Soundz –‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’
One of Pavement’s most simple songs, Gold Soundz is a masterclass in Malkmus ability to transform a straight song into something more with his lyricism and off-key delivery. It’s a track that is just at the edge of his range, and the strain drags comforting emotion to the surface. The couplet, immortalised by their greatest hits collection, ‘you’re the kind of girl I like, because you’re empty, and I’m empty, and you can never quarantine the past’ epitomises the blunt honesty of the group in general. It’s Pavement at their most middle of the road, but the road they’re cruising down is one that many indie bands have tried, and failed, to reach the end of.
Summer Babe (Winter Version) – ‘Slanted and Enchanted’
The lead track off of Pavement’s début album sets the tone for their career providing slanty-indie-pop-gems. Three chords, essentially improvised lead lines throughout and Malkmus and Spiral Stairs singing/chanting a paean to some mysterious ‘Summer Babe’ is all this is. Although it’s mooted as the ‘winter version’, this is unmistakably sunny slacker abandon at its finest.
Grounded – ‘Wowee Zowee’
Their most beautiful song. The haunting chiming guitars that lead the track are an island of clarity in what is no doubt the weirdest Pavement album. You can tell this is going to be a great song within the first half second, and when the drums and bass kick in this belief is vindicated. The drone note in the chorus immediately after the line ‘boys are dying in these streets’ is a spine tingling example of suspense release used to astounding effect.
Cut Your Hair – ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’
The moment where Pavement almost accidentally crossed over into mainstream consciousness, ‘Cut Your Hair’ is a quasi-skate-pop-punk song, albeit squashed and rearranged through the Pavement machine into something all the more jagged yet eloquent. Pretty sure I’ve had the ‘ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh oohs’ stuck in my from the minute I first heard this song.
Stereo –‘Brighten the Corners’
‘Stereo’ can probably be seen as the defining point at the climax of Pavement’s creative curve. This isn’t to say this is their best song or album whatsoever, but just that after this point, although final album ‘Terror Twilight’ has its standout moments and tender charm, by then Malkmus was already halfway into solo artist territory. ‘Stereo’ is the last track in which you can hear the band really let loose, and boy is it visceral. Arguably the best chorus they ever wrote, supplemented by the finest example of Mark Ibold’s off-kilter bass style, ‘Stereo’ is a sensational blow-out.
AT&T – ‘Wowee Zowee’
Yet another list-article staple, that of the obscure-track-which-is-noentheless-one-of-the-author’s-favourites-as-they-desperately-try-to-appear-EVEN-MORE-INDIE-because-they’re-too-good-for-all-the-other-fans. I just love this track; the refrain of ‘whenever, whenever, whenever, I feel fiiiiiiine’ epitomises the lackadaisical attitude this band is premised on. A little bit of almost misplaced ‘whoahs’ over the final chorus is never a bad thing either
Here – ‘Slanted and Enchanted’
Whilst a lot of this album is lo-fi bordering on the unlistenable, ‘Here’ is the very first glimpse we get of Malkmus’ capacity to write incredibly touching pseudo-ballads. A highlight of the album for this reason, Malkmus’ admission that he’s ‘the only one who laughs, at your jokes when they are so bad’ could almost be seen as a taunt over a jape that no one else is in on; maybe the poorly recorded and seemingly thoughtless tracks that surround ‘Here’ are piss-takes we’ve been suckered into adulating? Probably not, but it is an interesting thought.
Debris Slide – ‘Perfect Sound Forever (EP)’
After expounding the quality of even their B-sides, it would be remiss not to include one, right? Picking one proves another almightily difficult task, but I’ve settled on ‘Debris Slide’ as it also allows me to work in praise for their capacity for blistering live performance. Two birds with one stone and all that. As alluded to, this is a live favourite, being one of the heavier tracks in their arsenal, coupled with the fact that the chorus just consists of ‘ba, ba ,ba’s and yelling the name of the song means it’s perfectly suited for a room full of sweaty indie kids.
Stop Breathin – ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’
The final selection is doomy waltz ‘Stop Beathin’- reconciling war and tennis into a striking and pained perennial set-closer. The virtually whispered repeated line of ‘dad they broke me’ is a genuine goose-pimple inducer (I’m not afraid to admit it sometimes brings a tear to my eye when I’m at my most emotionally fragile). The sinister outro is one of their darkest moments, a telling contrast to the gentile first half- yet another example of this great band’s musical dexterity.
There we have it- your beginners guide. If you enjoy this selection then I implore you to dig deeper as there are many, many tracks I have begrudgingly left out. For example, just because I haven’t selected anything from ‘Terror Twilight’ doesn’t mean that it hasn’t got some great moments, and this is after all a personal list, you may find your own spirit songs .
To end with an incredibly forced metaphor, if the above is your ‘essential reading’ here are some ‘recommended articles’ (how forced was THAT?): ‘Unfair’: punktastic, ‘Frontwards’: touching, ‘Kennel District’: spiral stairs sings, ‘The Hexx: dark, ‘We Dance’: Acoustic, ‘Range Life’: everyone else seems to love it, ‘In the Mouth of a Desert’: ditto.