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Dissected: Pavement

A strange stroll through the band's history as The Secret History, Vol. 1 drops

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    dissected logo Dissected: PavementWelcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of your older cousin’s favorite band.

    If any band begs for the Dissected treatment as defined above, it’s Pavement. Not because they like beer (although they do/did) or because we’ve already picked apart Stephen Malkmus’ solo discography (although it seems weird that we haven’t done the same with his most famous work) or because they’ve got a (sorta) new odds-and-end compilation out this week (although yeah, that happened).

    No, the reason Pavement warrants, deserves, needs a Dissected article is because the band was loose. They were playful. They were wuh-wuh-wuh-weeeird!

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    But the more I started delving into their discography, the more nuance and — dare I say it — seriousness I discovered. Being a longtime fan, I of course already knew those things were there, but they often get overshadowed by the yelps, noise, and forgot-my-homework-so-let-me-throw-some-shit-together album art.

    So in dissecting their discography, I tried to keep the many sides of the band in mind: their puckishness, their demented lyrics, and the effective, if usually brief, moments of melancholy and emotionalism that shone through it all. In the group’s well-publicized, fairly one-sided beef with Billy Corgan, The Great Pumpkin said that no one falls in love to Pavement’s music. I beg to differ. Not only do people fall in love to their music — they party to it, dance to it, fuck to it, write to it, veg out to it, laugh to it, play with their dog to it, and just about everything else. A couple things to keep in mind:

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    – I covered all of the extended plays in addition to the albums. To ignore the band’s shorter works — especially the first three EPs — would be skipping over an entire era of their sound. And to only cover their five full-lengths would have made for a really short article.

    – Stephen Malkmus and guitarist/occasional frontman Scott Kannberg (aka Spiral Stairs) will never be completely straightforward lyricists. The beauty of their transformative vocabularies is that they sing with enough alternating urgency and casualness that the words end up sounding like normal conversation. So while there’s no way to say for sure what most of their songs are about, it’s fun to try. Whenever I offer a theory of what a song is about, it’s just that — a theory (unless otherwise noted).

    – In my opinion, Pavement has a near-perfect discography. It’s not without its flaws (especially with their slapdash final EPs), but it seemed pointless to officially rank their work, as the glowing praise would have gotten boring.

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    Speaking of boring, enough from my critical ass. We’ve got one of the best bands in the world to talk about. So pour yourself a glass of extra dry Lancers, settle into your serpentine pad, and let’s begin (unless you’re too old to do so).

    –Dan Caffrey
    Senior Staff Writer

    Slay Tracks (1933–1969) EP (1989) 

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    “You sold us out and took it all” (song that should’ve been a hit): The first in Pavement’s trilogy of fidgety, low-fi EPs, Slay Tracks (1933–1969) relies way more on rattle than hum. Regardless, there are still hooks for those who want to find them beneath the static. One song, in particular, stands apart for having no fuzz at all — even in 1989, everything in “Box Elder” rang crystal clear: the fort-holding bass, the uncharacteristically straight drumming, and of course, a guitar line with all the sunniness of The Wedding Present, who recorded a cover of the song a year later without Pavement’s knowledge. Although angry at first (as they should have been), Malkmus and Kannberg (the only official members at the band’s genesis) eventually grew to appreciate the exposure brought to their scrappy little EP by a — at the time — much larger group. Maybe they’ll tour together one day.

    “1 Sick Verse” (best rhyme): Malkmus wasn’t yet exhibiting the verbal acrobatics he’d start showing off on Slanted and Enchanted, but “Price Yeah”‘s climax of “No, they won’t have teeth to say I’m wrong/ I want a better bong” is more effective in its cryptic angst than most lyrics that came out of the grunge era — not that Pavement was anything close to grunge.

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    “Enough to make your ears twitch” (noisiest use of noise): Opener “You’re Killing Me” starts with six different types of static in just as many seconds before landing on a final squelch (akin to a snowy television screen) that more or less underscores the rest of the song.

    “Hand me the drumstick, snare kick” (wildest Gary Young moment): Nearly a decade older than Malkmus and Kannberg, Young was an eccentric pot dealer and owner of Louder Than You Think, one of only two recording studios in Pavement’s then home base of Stockton, California. He also happened to be an incredible, if unrefined and unpredictable, drummer, much closer to a real-life version of Animal than Keith Moon, Steve Mitchell, or any other skin-man rumored to have inspired the famous Muppet.

    Young volunteered to lay down some percussion for Pavement after hearing the minimalist tracks brought in by the duo, and “She Believes” captures his style most accurately. He takes it easy on the kick and cymbals, monolithically sticking to snare and floor tom until the three-minute mark. That’s when he explodes and whacks everything in sight, including some household objects that probably weren’t part of his drum kit at all. Actually, knowing Young, they probably were.

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    “Ask me if you want to be…fffucked” (most grotesque instance of sex): Eventually, Malkmus treated sex (which comes up in Pavement songs way more than you think) with the same surrealist — make that cubist — eye as Picasso and Dali, rendering his lewdness more evocative than squirmy. Early on, however, he kept it pretty nasty with “She Believes”. Sample lyric: “I told her I was free of disease/ And she believed.”

    “You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry” (unexpected moment of emotion): Pavement’s music, while almost universally praised by critics, has always been noted as being void of emotion. I don’t buy it. Impenetrability can still carry emotional weight (especially when the hooks are so strong), and mystery aside, every album has at least one moment of soul-stirring clarity. Here, it’s once again “Box Elder”, where Malkmus fantasizes about leaving home. That’s a frustrated dream we can all relate to.

    “Painted over paint” (crudeness of the album art): Kannberg was in charge of packaging Slay Tracks and didn’t have a clue how to do it. So, in a move that predates most underground EPs released in the ’90s, he drew something himself. While the only thing it brings to mind is homemade graph paper drawn on a sticky note, it’s a pretty accurate representation of the ramshackle music within and established the collage-type feel of much of the band’s artwork to come.

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    “Stop criticizing me” (verdict): Other than “Box Elder”, Slay Tracks isn’t the best entry point to Pavement. But once you’ve become a convert, it’s downright indispensable, proving that, even in the ’80s, Pavement’s not-so-grand vision of catchy chaos was already coming into focus.

    Demolition Plot J-7 EP (1990)

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    “You sold us out and took it all”: “Spizzle Trunk” ain’t exactly radio-ready, but its rockabilly piano could have done wonders on-air had the whole thing been recorded with a little more polish.

    “1 Sick Verse”: Even if Malkmus’ vocals on “Internal K-Dart” are buried so far beneath the space-battle guitars that you can’t tell what he’s saying, the song title alone is beautifully tripped out, bringing to mind some sort of fictional G.I. Joe weapon.

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    “Enough to make your ears twitch”: There’s enough squall on Demolition Plot J-7 to capsize a brigantine manned by a whole crew of Scott Wolfs (Wolves?). Just what the hell are those mechanized sounds at the beginning of “Forklift”? My guess would be a forklift (duh), but it could also be a gun getting assembled or a broke-ass indie band’s attempt to emulate the opening of KISS’ Detroit Rock City.

    “Hand me the drumstick, snare kick”: Young actually sat out for Demolition Plot due to jealousy of Jason Fawkes, a drummer whom Kannberg had formed a new band with while Malkmus was away traveling. When SM returned, they decided to convert the tunes to Pavement tracks, with Fawkes sitting in on drums since he helped write the music. Apparently, things got so tense with Young while the band recorded at his studio that Fawkes ultimately walked after recording “Forklift”. Having pissed off both of their percussionists, Malkmus and Kannberg were left to drum on the rest of the EP themselves, which means there’s a whole lot of primordial thudding and not a whole lot of proper drumming.

    “Ask me if you want to be…fffucked”: It’s hard to say for sure, but Malkmus’ trip to Vegas in “Forklift” just might end with him getting laid and robbed by a bunch of old ladies at the slot machines.

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    “Show me a word that rhymes with ‘Pavement’ and I won’t kill your parents”(most grotesque instance of violence): Malkmus treats violence (another topic that comes up in Pavement songs more often than you think) the same weird way he treats sex, and someone gets their hand stuck in the sink on “Perfect Depth”. Is there a garbage disposal in that sink? And does someone accidentally flip the On switch? It’s a Pavement song, so our answer is a resounding “maybe (baby)?” 

    “You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry”: With his hand stuck in the sink for so long, the protagonist of “Perfect Depth” has a lot of time to think about his romantic mistakes. So we feel bad for him. Plus, his hand is in a sink. And he probably gets it ground into hamburger.

    “Painted over paint”: It’s actually one of Pavement’s starker, more cohesive, and less busy album covers — what looks like cobblestones filtered to resemble the surface of the moon.

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    “Stop criticizing me”: Due to the piecemeal way the songs were written, band turmoil, and Young’s absence on the album, Demolition Plot J-7 depends on empty noise to fill in the gaps even more so than its predecessor. There’s still enough of a pop crosshair on “Forklift”, “Spizzle Trunk”, and “Perfect Depth” to make it enjoyable, but there’s also a sense of grasping at static for enough material to comprise a full EP.

    Perfect Sound Forever EP (1991)

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    “You sold us out and took it all”: While the title comes from a promise made by Sony in the 1980s regarding the quality of their compact discs, there are more than enough potential singles on this bite-sized EP (not even 12 minutes long!) to undercut such sly irony. “Angel Carver Blues/Mellow Jazz Docent” could have easily been a hit if Drag City had been a bigger label at the time. And if the title weren’t so long and strange.

    “1 Sick Verse”: In “From Now On”, Malkmus repeatedly asks if he can “see the skin rot/ On a dog stray’s hide.” That doesn’t rhyme, but I love that he says “dog stray’s” and not “stray dog’s.”

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    “Enough to make your ears twitch”: Even though three of the seven tracks are noisy instrumentals, they’re short, and their cyclone never touches the more fully formed songs. For my money, “Heckler Spray” wins because I picture its queasy harmonics blasting Statler and Waldorf right out of their balcony in the Muppet Theater. That’s two! Two Muppet references in one article! Ah ah ah ah. Make that three.

    “Hand me the drumstick, snare kick”: Young returns to the drums here for an uneasy truce and flexes his walloping fills (his greatest strength) on “Debris Slide”.

    “Ask me if you want to be…fffucked”: Although Malkmus gives this command in “Angel Carver Blues”, “Home” takes this superlative by recalling a disturbing scene from Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer-winning play, Buried Child. Note how there’s never any actual sex, at least not in the traditional sense: “Stick your fingers in my mouth/ Pull back my lips and watch me smile.” Later, “Look below her nylon stockings/ Snapped the double notch and left untied.”

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    “…and I won’t kill your parents”: “Angel Carver Blues/Mellow Jazz Docent”, without a doubt. Blue Note Records even considered selling the second title at Starbucks, until the first title’s image of carving up an angel’s wings made them think otherwise. (note: this probably never happened)

    “Painted over paint”: The sloppily thrown-together wreckage contains what looks like fuselage and the trusses of an outdoor stage. It’s as if the band was trying to offset their unstoppable progress toward sonic cohesion.

    “Stop criticizing me”: It’s a cliche to riff on the record’s title at this point (Rob Jovanovic even used it for his Pavement biography), but it’s also a cliche for a reason. Perfect Sound Forever lives up to its title by tipping the noise-pop scales in favor of pop. But juuust slightly.

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    Slanted and Enchanted (1992)

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    “You sold us out and took it all”: Starting with this, their first proper LP, Pavement would release several singles for each album — not that many of them would chart. Still, “Summer Babe (Winter Version)” certainly should have. Maybe the lyrics about a girl eating her own fingers turned off mainstream listeners.

    “1 Sick Verse”: If Malkmus were a superhero, he’d be an anthropomorphic thesaurus with muscular arms, a domino mask tied around the leather-bound cover, and a little cape. Slanted and Enchanted was the first time he fully stepped into this role, so it’s hard to choose the best, most elaborate lyric. “Conduit for Sale!” makes a good case for itself, though: “Imagine if you were Herr Barockter/ Alias and nobleman/ Son of son of sky, and of scion/ Part of his rich inheritance parceled and generous divorce, sentence forthwith being.” Also, if you Google “Conduit for Sale,” you get several advertisements of actual conduits for sale.

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    “Beside the spiral staircase” (Scott Kannberg songs): From here on out, every Pavement full-length featured at least one song where Kannberg took lead vocals. Unlike George Harrison or Rick Danko, he never got to the point where he made more than a handful of his own contributions, but he did always make them count without deviating too far from the album’s groove. On Slanted, “Two States” cuts through the woeful dust trudged up by “Here” with chant-like vocals and some playful allusions to the Civil War. It takes a band like Pavement to make the Civil War playful.

    “Hand me the drumstick, snare kick”: Young’s two drum roll bursts at the 2:27 mark of “Summer Babe” seem to be the only thing keeping the song from falling apart. Or are they the only thing keeping it from coming back together?

    “Ask me if you want to be…fffucked”: From the phantasmagorical “Perfume V”: “In my bed at the break of dawn/ She shivered like a vein slashed bright and new.” What the hell happened in that bed?

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    “…and I won’t kill your parents”: Another angel gets cut in two on “No Life Singed Her”.

    “You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry”: “Here” is the obvious moment of emotional clarity, but album closer “Our Singer” also deserves to be called out. The slowest and most minor-key songs on the album, they both seem to deal with an artist who can’t quite get to the next plateau of success.

    “Painted over paint”: The band name and album title look scrawled in whiteout, but never messy enough to obscure the central image of piano keys snaking upward and out of frame. Manic, yet measured, which is a pretty good way to describe the album.

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    “Stop criticizing me”: The effective end of Pavement 1.0, Slanted and Enchanted marked the last time the band was so effortless in their spontaneity. That’s not to say later works aren’t surprising in their own right (Brighten the Corners will always be my personal favorite). But there’s less of a freewheeling atmosphere when compared to their first LP; Malkmus himself has described it possessing an “unrepeatable energy.” From here on out, the wildness would always feel obtained after trial and error rather than randomly unearthed.   

    Watery, Domestic EP (1992)

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    “You sold us out and took it all”: The warm thump and faux-cool chorus of “Frontwards” proved so irresistible that it was covered 15 years later by Los Campesinos!, who even had the sense to release it as a single.

    “1 Sick Verse”: “Cheerleaders single file/ Perfect smiles unaffected/ And you won’t forget our color’s blue” is probably the only Pavement lyric that could be a school cheer.

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    “A special new band” (personnel changes): Watery, Domestic introduced listeners to chilled-over bassist Mark Ibold (later of Sonic Youth) and auxiliary percussionist/quasi-keyboardist/professional shouter Bob Nastanovich. Both would soon become vital parts of the band, but on Watery, Nastanovich was relegated to helping an increasingly erratic, undependable, and zonked out Young keep time. It’s no surprise Young was asked to leave before the recording of the next album. To their credit, Young and the rest of Pavement have remained friendly over the years, even reuniting for a hometown show back in 2010.

    “You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry”: Lyrically, “Shoot the Singer (1 Sick Verse)” isn’t the most decipherable thing in the world, but the fadeout takes on considerable emotional weight thanks to a spike in Ibold’s bass. For a brief moment, the ponderous hum overtakes everything before Malkmus escorts us out with some “La da da da”s that sound like he’s wordlessly mulling over some kind of difficult decision. Maybe it has something to do with his drummer.

    “Painted over paint”: The rooster on the cover actually looks pretty lush and thought out, until you realize it’s stolen right from Ambergris’ self-titled album — then defaced with chalk.

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    “Stop criticizing me”: These days, most EPs are compilations of b-sides, remixes, and throwaway tracks, making Watery, Domestic an artifact of a time when extended plays were treated with just as much care and vision as their full-length counterparts. Each of its five songs have a nagging sense of dread that creeps into the lyrics and sometimes the tones, which once again, can probably be attributed to the addition of an honest-to-god bassist and the band fretting over what to do with Young. Let’s not forget, he wasn’t just their drummer. He was their friend.

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