For this edition of Dusting ‘Em Off, staff writers Josh Terry, Pat Levy, and Sam Willett revisit Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement’s sophomore album, which turned 20 on February 14th. To celebrate, the trio break down their introductions to Pavement, favorite tracks, and their favorite “Malkmusisms.”
Josh Terry: Pavement have long been one of my favorite bands, a perfect combination of the punk and classic rock I grew up listening to. Being too young to fully appreciate them when the album was released, my first exposure to Pavement was hearing “Spit On A Stranger” at 13 or 14 from a friend’s mixtape. At the time still more inclined to the likes of AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and The Ramones, I enjoyed “Spit On A Stanger”, but not enough for me to dig too much deeper. I wanted rollicking guitars and distortion, plus, I was admittedly lacking in an indie rock education. Fortunately, like mostly everyone, I grew more curious about the music I loved and my ever-expanding tastes brought me back to Pavement.
For me, Pavement began to really click a year later after working my way through their discography. Though “Split On A Stranger” and Terror Twilight are still strong (come on, “Carrot Rope”, “The Hexx”?), Pavement catapulted near the top of my favorites as soon as I spent some time with their brilliant first full-length, Slanted & Enchanted. Tracks like “Summer Babe”, “Loretta’s Scars”, and “Here” became instant favorites. The album itself was messy and raw in all the right places.
The moment I first heard Crooked Rain, I was taken back by its accessibility. From the start, Malkmus’ penchant for hooks were visible with the striking, but still noisy opener “Silence Kid” along with the undeniable pop-sensibilities of “Cut Your Hair” and “Gold Soundz”. There are still the loud moments, like the flailing and aggressive “Unfair”, the jazzy interlude “5 – 4 Unity”, and the pensive “Stop Breathing”. Even though it never topped Slanted & Enchanted as a personal favorite, it still manages to feel fresh after countless plays. Now on every trip back of hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, I find Crooked Rain’s CD forever lying somewhere my old car, impossibly not-yet worn out from the years of spins.
While a lot of retrospectives have given Crooked Rain its necessary historical treatment, it’d feel silly to not include that. After all, the year leading up to Crooked Rain’s release saw the band in a peculiar spot. Following the departure of original drummer Gary Young, the lineup of frontman Stephen Malkmus, guitarist Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg, percussionist-vocalist Bob Nastanovich, and new drummer Steve West were still riding high off the release of Slanted & Enchanted. That debut beat out alternative rock stalwarts R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People at the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll, placing an almost-unprecedented second. With almost unanimous praise, it made for a remarkable critical success story for an indie release—the healthy sales numbers didn’t hurt either. Its success meant that along with the indie and critical worlds, MTV and the mainstream would also keep a close eye out for its followup.
When Crooked Rain was released in 1994, it didn’t lead to Pavement breaking into the mainstream. But, the album did crack into the Billboard 200, while “Cut Your Hair” enjoyed plays on both MTV and alternative rock radio. They also got to play the song on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno (R.I.P, not really), with Malkmus opening the performance with a series of bizarre screeches and vocalizing—rock and roll. Despite the band never reaching the heights of say, Nirvana, the album was still an unequivocal success, as Stereogum’s Chris Deville puts it, “a document of a singular band at the peak of its powers confidently carving out new territory.”
With yesterday marking its 20th anniversary, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, like the lion’s share of Pavement’s discography, still holds up to the scrutiny. To start this conversation off, when did you guys first hear this album? What sticks out to you?
Pat Levy: My first brush with Pavement was seeing them as “The Beatles” on an episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast that remains one of my favorites to this day. After Space Ghost puts Zorak in jail, he demands Moltar get The Beatles or a group like them to fill in as the house band, because the viewers are idiots who won’t notice. Lo and behold, Pavement shuffles onto the stage minutes later and blasts through their version of the theme despite being challenged by an a cappella version by SNL’s Colin Quinn. Their dissonant chords and feedback-drenched performance drowned out the interview with Goldie Hawn but it was so enrapturing that even Space Ghost had to join in on the chorus. Needless to say, I was infatuated immediately, but never put much thought into checking out the band more for a few years.
When I did, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was their first album that I really connected with, mostly because of the album’s accessibility as Josh noted. It was somehow experimental while still being their most restrained work, with “Cut Your Hair” standing out as an obvious hit, while other songs like the jazz-minded opus “5-4 = Unity” and the thoroughly mellow “Heaven is a Truck” still demanding attention. Less lo-fi and wacky than any of their other releases, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is the most mature statement the band ever made. That’s not to say things didn’t get weird a few times, with “Range Life” holding a few lighthearted disses aimed at The Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots that helped to spur on a strange rivalry between Malkmus and Billy Corgan for years to come.
With the band forming in California, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain feels like the most West Coast-y of the band’s releases. Maybe it was the departure of Gary Young that led the entire band to scale things back from the weirdo niche they had begun to carve out with the first record, but whatever it was that led them back to more classic rock roots, it was well worth it. “Cut Your Hair” is the minor “hit” on the album, but “Gold Soundz” also received some radio play and, to me at least, is the definitive summer song. Soaked in good vibes and excellent musicianship, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the entire record, and stands as one of my all time favorite Pavement tracks.
What say you Sam? Intro to Pavement, favorite Malkmus lyric, favorite episode of SGC2C?
Sam Willett: As opposed to both of your early introductions, I was pretty late to the game. I was treading shallow music waves, meaning whatever alt-rock band played on Q101 (RIP), or anything from the Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins discography until my Junior year of high school. After meeting a bunch of music fanatics at festivals and trading suggestions on message boards and music blogs, I found reason to discover and celebrate music that I missed when I was too young to appreciate. Even though I made strides with Built to Spill and The Dismemberment Plan, I still had some catching up to do.
When Pavement reunited in 2009, everyone was jumping up for joy and virtually high-fiving all of over message boards, but I had no idea why. In attempts to get with it, I downloaded Slanted & Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. I discovered the excitement that everyone captured in their excitement in the former, which was wrapped in a zaniness and odd catchiness that didn’t make sense, at first. Its hazy production was dirty, something you had to get used to before embracing. The seemingly out-of-tune guitar movement of “Zurich is Stained” and “Loretta’s Scars, the exclamatory chants of “Conduit for Sale!” and “Two States”, and sporadic banter randomly sewn into the record made listening to rock music careless and fun. It was a slap in the face when my “cheeks [had] lost their luster.” After falling in love with it, those songs would linger through my psyche endlessly to a point where I would randomly sing/softly shout excerpts. Unfortunately, my friends weren’t into that thing to join my bantering, yet.
Thankfully, I got that opportunity at Pitchfork Music Festival the following year, realizing that such eclecticism and goofy sensibilities resonated with thousands of others as much, if not more, than it did with myself. Malkmus looked back at the debut with a smile in an interview with GQ, believing “Slanted & Enchanted is probably the best record we made, only because it’s less self-conscious and has an unrepeatable energy about it,” which played a large influence on what was to come. What makes Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain a perfect sophomore album is that Pavement didn’t forget about all of the zaniness and weird shenanigans; they advanced into something refined and cleaner. In turn, they were more in-touch with what wanted to be known for, a band that could kick out memorable hooks without wanting to make it big.
Pat and Josh, you’ve already given the catchy side justice, but what resonates most with me is their newly-concentrated intuition. With S&E, there wasn’t anything too deep, nothing to make you stop dancing with them. This time around, Malkmus and Co. had newly-crafted reservations about fame and humanity that cues a very profound listening experience. Who knew that their obnoxious banter could turn into emotional testimony. “Elevate Me Later” spit in the hand’s of big time stars, “Fillmore Jive” simplified happiness into an undisturbed hungover nap, and “Stop Breathin'” is as empathetic as Pavement ever was, at that time. “Write it on a postcard/ Dad, they broke me” pulls at my heartstrings every time and will always be one my favorite Malkmusisms.
That Stereogum excerpt Josh mentioned fits Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain perfectly, because for me, the album is all about its seamless union between simultaneously giving a fuck and not giving a fuck. Even though their faces wear stern looks, they have some heartfelt tendencies that make returning back to their record feel warm and worry-free.
Josh Terry: Sam touches on a very important aspect of Crooked Rain—the point of the the album wasn’t necessarily to reach that large audience. Rather, it was obvious that even though some the songs are decidedly more radio-friendly, it’s still has the character and attitude of a Pavement record—just recorded differently. It’s still loose, with messier moments like Side B’s “Heaven is A Truck” and the chaotic “Hit The Plane Down”, and Malkmus was still writing great songs.
Lyrically, I love Crooked Rain because of the many references to being in a band and navigating the ‘90s musical landscape. Pat mentioned the memorable call-outs in “Range Life”, but there’s also the screamed “say good night to the last psychedelic band” in “Unfair”, and “good night to the rock and roll era” in the closer, “Filmore Jive”. The record is also about growing up, and out of the many “Malkmusisms” to choose from, I think I’ll have to pick another from “Range Life”: “And the gum smacks are pulse I’ll follow if my Walkman fade/ But I’ve got absolutely no one, no one but myself to blame.”
Malkmus has a way of writing revealing but obtuse lyrics, and his songwriting on this album exemplifies that. While they would go on to make more excellent albums, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain shows the band on the rise, expertly balancing the expectations of a great follow-up with their tried and true fundamentals.