Dissonant Notes

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Fall and the Rise of Pavement

Let me begin by saying that Pavement have always been one of my favourite bands. Ever since I fell in love with "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain" in 94' they've managed to be an almost constant presence on my stereo. So it was with a slightly heavy heart that I began to question my love for them. Why would I do such a thing you ask in all fairness? Perhaps in the process of growing older we feel the need to take a pot shot at our former heroes, in order to free ourselves from their vice like grip. As a musician this would be understandable, as there is nothing worse than the feeling of being too influenced by a particular artist. In the case of Pavement, though, this doesn't hold true as I have never felt myself to be overtly influenced by them in any way despite my avowed fan status. (Elliott Smith, yes, but not Pavement). No, it was rather a nagging feeling that ate away at me, as each double disc reissue came out to rapturous fanfares and Pavement took that little step closer to being inducted into CLASSIC ROCK STATUS. "This is all going too smoothly" I thought. It began to reek of calculated careerism. New Order were only given the two disc deluxe treatment last year and here was Pavement on their fourth reissue without a peep of dissent to be heard. There was something rotten at the heart of Pavement that I intended to figure out. In order to do so, let's go back to the album that put them on the map, "Slanted And Enchanted".

"Slanted And Enchanted" was recorded for the most part in January of 1991. It was then shopped around, and an indie buzz was allowed to develop (it was circulated via taped copies) as Pavement considered offers, looking for the right record label to release it. Intimations of calculation already begin to raise their head. (It was eventually to be released on Matador in April 1992). Then comes the music itself. At heart, Malkmus is a melodic pop/rock songwriter. A good one no doubt, but the vast majority of his songs stick to standard rock structures. Knowing this, it seems like he felt the need to make Pavement alternative credible in the beginning, lest they be seen as nothing out of the ordinary. To do this, he basically took the image and sound wholesale of a hugely respected but relatively unknown (in the grand scheme of things) English post-punk band, namely The Fall. All of Pavement's early artwork reeks of The Fall. The songs that aren't catchy melodic indie pop are basically Fall rip-offs. Christ, "Conduit For Sale!" IS "New Face In Hell". Remember when The Strokes appeared and the whole world felt confident enough to haul them over the coals for apparently sounding like hundreds of different bands (Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, The Modern Lovers, to name but a few) even though in reality they sounded like none of them? Where were those people when Pavement first appeared? Why weren't Pavement roasted alive for basing half their album on somebody else's ideas? In a word, cool.

Stephen Malkmus is no dummy. While The Strokes bought into New York hip and didn't hide their rich upbringings, Malkmus transformed his comfortable middle class roots into all American classless indie dude-rock. Out came the plaid shirts of Creedence lore, out came the clever and apparently never ending stream of obscure band namedropping. College rock was ready to go overground, but not in the form of unmelodious hardcore. Malkmus succeeded in dressing Pavement up like a suburban everydude's fantasy band. Cool in a "whatever man" uncool kind of way (yes, loser culture was just about to hit big), hopelessly hip and savvy yet catchy enough as to not be off-putting for delicate eared Freshmen with leisure cash to spare. Pavement's Fall borrowings were really a Trojan Horse to allow their much less radical approach to lodge itself into the alternative press' consciousness. In retrospect, the obvious calculation is almost astounding. They were simply too hip to be shot down. Fall comparisons were made, but it didn't really matter (unless you were Mark E. Smith). It seemed more to be a case of getting it out of the way before concentrating on the real business of frothing all over Pavement.

Even as a Pavement fan I took their lyrics to be more a matter of amusement, with their most oft quoted lyrics usually their least surreal (hands up everybody whose favourite Pavement line is either "So drunk, in the August sun and you're the kind of girl I like because you're empty, and I'm empty", or "I was dressed for success, but success it never comes"). Yet to read many reviews it would appear that people have actually convinced themselves that these meanderings have literary merit. Yes, compared to the pompous doggerel of the Smashing Pumpkins it at least showed a healthy sense of self-awareness, but so does Ben Folds but that doesn't make him good. It's also not enough of a defense to claim that's its a refreshing change from Clash-esque proclamations of overt sincerity. We have other options people. Lionising arch nonsense will not save us from the next generation of "we mean it maaan" bravado, it'll just give us Weezer (who, I kid you not, are accused of ripping off Pavement in the sleeve notes of the reissue of "Slanted And Enchanted"!!!!!!) Let's just take the lyrics of Stephen Malkmus for what they are, the ever-so-pleased-with-themselves lyrical outpourings of a contented middle class egghead. He likes to shoot some basketball. He reads New York Times op-eds. He's informed but, y'know, ok with stuff. If need be he'll drop a Red Krayola reference and all the music nerds will feel all the better for it.

Post "Wowee Zowee" Malkmus' songwriting has shown zero development. That does not make the songs bad, far from it, it just reinforces my notion that Malkmus has one real trick up his sleeve, and that's being a classic songwriter who possesses the wherewithal to dress his moves up in alternative clothing. To be honest I haven't picked up the "Brighten The Corners" reissue yet. I'll get around to it one day. Part of me remains stunned that Pavement's unstoppable rise from indie darlings to 2CD reissue status has gone completely unchallenged. Where is the scorn and cynicism? The truth is, their playbook 'alternative' cool was matched in equal measure by their inoffensiveness. There's really nothing to get angry about. They played everything just right. Even the reissue's look and feel classic. Everything happened like it was supposed to, and that's the worm that's eating away at me. Whether you think that justifies this attack or not is really not the point. Along with the actual music, what punk and post-punk brought back to music was the idea of debate, the sense that SOMETHING mattered. There were no sacred cows. It would be a real shame if we had all been fooled into buying another round of classic rock posturing simply because it contained the most superficial elements of post-punk. If Pavement are going to have the nerve to revel in the trappings of a radical post-punk band, then I want to know just what it is they stood for. If it's just the music, man, then we may as well just forget about everything and listen to The Allman Brothers. Somebody neutered alternative music to make it safe for mainstream consumption, and Pavement are looking about as guilty as anyone of being one of the main culprits. It's high time they were tried for their offenses.


  1. http://www.mediafire.com/download/3206cr0euy7f3fx/Slanted+-+Forever.zip

    ....enjoy you bitter young punx......

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