Rough Guide to Pavement

A couple of years ago I decided to narrow down the entire Pavement catalogue into my twenty favorites songs, and I posted these as a week-long series on the eMusic blog, 17 Dots. There are a few things that I might change at this point, but by and large I still stand behind this.

20 “She Believes” | Westing (By Musket and Sextant)

Early recording, much of the song pretty much a throwaway, but it’s that Daydream Nation chorus, “but she believes,” Malkmus sings razor-thin, and the guitar pensive and hoping that makes the song so great. It totally falls apart (purposely) in the last 40 seconds — maybe the boys weren’t comfortable yet sounding purty? — but the rest of the song more than makes up for it.

19 “We Dance” | Wowee Zowee

Somewhere, sometime, someone from Pavement said something about how there was no set order to Wowee Zowee, that the random button on your CD player (‘member those?) was just as good a sequencing. There’s some truth to that, but it’s also true that “We Dance” is a spectacular opening song, a statement of purpose, a rock critic might say, for WZ itself: content to stay in place, no direction forward, relaxed and stoned. Oh and of course that opening lyric, so prescient from a white-dudes-with-guitars-indie-band in a particularly socially aware moment: “There is no/ Castration fear” as water starts pouring in the background. Funny stuff!

18 “In the Mouth of a Desert” | Slanted & Enchanted

The first in a long line of Pavement almost-ballads, those mid-tempo numbers where Malkmus sounds bored, the band sounds tinny and uninterested, the whole reason why they got stuck with that slacker tab and seemed determined to live up to it. They are also, pretty much across the board, the best Pavement songs. So maybe there’s something to that after all.

17 “Shady Lane” | Brighten the Corners

So I have a really, really hard time with Pavement post-Pacific Trim. Brighten the Corners totally bummed me out, and Terror Twilight I just couldn’t deal with at all. Pavement got so technical, sounding almost like Steely Dan with how orchestrated the songs suddenly were, as if they were playing connect-the-dots with some sheet music that fell out of Spiral Stairs’ knapsack. Still, I have to give it up for “Shady Lane,” which is a very sweet song, goofy in the right places and it’s really, really damn hard not to coo along with Malk, “Dutch! Dutch! Dutch!”

16 “Greenlander” | Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe and Redux

Originally included on the Born to Choose comp in '93, “Greenlander” is in the vein of Slanted & Enchanted, very muffled with lots of dramatic mini-pauses, stuttering drums from Nastanovich (or is that Gary Young?) and that omnipresent bass-heartbeat. A spectacularly understated tune.

15 “Silence Kit” | Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

Like “We Dance,” another album opener, this one beefier and broader, the first song they unleashed to the world after they “mattered.” What’s funny is that I don’t think it’s that much better than any of the songs I mentioned before, but it’s wrapped in more meaning being the first song on Pavement’s best-selling album and so evocative of a particular moment.

14 “Strings of Nashville” | Crooked Rain Crooked Rain: LA’s Desert Origins

Man did I love the “Gold Soundz” single. That might’ve been the moment when my interest turned into scary fandom, those three B-sides so good: “Kneeling Bus,” “Exit Theory” and this track. The resignation in “Nashville” is otherworldly: every aspect of the song is performed with the least amount of effort possible. Malkmus sounds like he’s singing from the bottom of a well, and the guitar is played so slowly and laconically it’s as if Kannberg is trying to transcribe the tablature as they record. Taken as a whole, it’s hypnotic, and a perfect, self-contained song.

13 “So Stark (You’re a Skyscraper)” | Trigger Cut

Though I dunno what it means, I’ve always found one lyric from this song awesomely snotty: “Stunnin’ the bureaucrats/ So fucking lost/ Stark as a skyscraper/ Letters embossed.” This is a rare Pavement song that heavily emphasizes the low-end, providing a pissy edge to the song’s placid, lackadaisical feel. Malkmus does his typical follow-the-bouncing-ball vocal melody, but his howl towards the end is totally unexpected and great. Recorded around Slanted & Enchanted, this really encapsulates the sound of early Pavement well.

12 “Give It a Day” | Pacific Trim EP

Veering close to Brighten the Corners-era, “Give It a Day” is so wordy it’s like Malkmus-as-self-parody, with its Cotton Mather namecheck, “small pox in the Sudan” and “gentrified your Alzheim clan” lyrics. But the melody is irresistible, loopy, catchy and really large. I remember this EP being a huge deal when it came out — only 5,000 copies manufactured on its initial run (it might have been my first-ever pre-order — thanks Blacksburg Record Exchange!) — and it really did signal a new direction for Pavement, with the ridiculous “Gangsters & Pranksters” and “Saganaw,” maybe the worst song in the band’s history (soooooo bad).

11 “AT&T” | Wowee Zowee

I originally had this song at the #3 spot — a sign of how close the next eleven songs are in terms of quality — but I had to keep dropping it as I returned to some old favorites. Still, this is an incredible song, especially its opening lyric, which I have always adored: “Maybe/ Someone’s gonna save me/ My heart is made of gravy.” (Is there a medical procedure for that, like doing a biscuit transplant?) If it weren’t for the last minute, which gets a bit silly in its epic-ness, this would’ve stayed top five, for sure. Although, listening to it on repeat right now, I can’t help but to feel like I’ve made a mistake for ranking it so low. Oh well.

10 “Stop Breathin’” | Crooked Rain Crooked Rain

Sitting here staring into space, I just realized that I have every lyric to this song memorized, and I can recount them sans music. Look who has talent! “Stop Breathin’” is such a beautiful song, so frank and sincere. The guitars shift in and out of each other, flirting like preteen fingers in a darkened movie theatre. “Dad they broke me.” “Stop breathin’ for me now.” I love it when they care.

09 “Range Life” | Crooked Rain Crooked Rain

Freshman year of college, stumbling through Colonial Williamsburg late one night with my two best friends, all of us intoxicated (on life!), the Colonial Cops patrolling through, driving up and down the cobblestone streets, the three of us ducking behind picket fences, mazed gardens and blacksmith shoppes. One friend, perhaps the most intoxicated of all, takes the opportunity during one particularly tense moment to begin singing/yelling, “the PIGS, the FUZZ, the COPS, the HEAT!” (a lyric from “Range Life”) at the top of her longs while we try to shush her. We get off scot-free. Also, I don’t think Lupe Fiasco’s masterful “Kick Push” could have existed without this song. Just sayin’.

08 “Here” | Slanted & Enchanted I’ve gotten to the point where I think I prefer the live version of this song (captured below in a YouTube clip, as well as in their Peel Session, heard here (waaa-waaaaaaaah) in track 24) to the album original. It’s a tough call. The original is introspective and resigned; the live versions are angry and defiant. And yet the lyrics work perfectly for both:

And I’m the only one who laughs

At your jokes when they are so bad

And your jokes are always bad

But they’re not as bad as this

Apropos of nothing, that verse has always reminded me of the opening lyric to Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street:” “You’ve got a lot of nerve/ To call yourself my friend/ When I was down/ You just stood there grinning,” which is the greatest opening lyric ever. FYI.

Anyway, the real key to “Here” is the guitar line. It plays a perfect harmony/counterpoint to the vocal, at times echoing Malkmus’ despair back to him, at others responding to it, as if it were the voice of the unnamed target of the song. Also, that little guitar hitch (dadadaddooooiDOY) sounds like Mario Brothers.

07 “Box Elder” | Westing (By Musket and Sextant)

Because making shit up/half-remembering it is more fun than researching, here’s the history of “Box Elder:” Malkmus wrote the song, and it was released on a cassette called Slay Tracks, which I believe was Pavement’s first-ever release. It came out in '89, I think. David Gedge, dude from Cinerama (who suck) and Wedding Present (who were sometimes awesome; buy Seamonsters, pls), heard the song somehow, and covered it on Bizarro, an album of theirs from the early '90s. Pavement had yet to really put anything out aside Slay Tracks, and yet Wedding Present were moderately big in the UK, and so there was interest generated and then John Peel loved Gedge and loved the song and this transferred over to Peel loving Malkmus and then History Was Made. Most of this might be false. I dunno. I do think I might like the Wedding Present cover better — they rightly recognized how great the crazy-simple guitar line is while Pavement buries it — but it’s the kinda track that’s awfully hard to screw up. I think a lot of folks consider this when Pavement really started. But who cares what a lotta people think — I gotta lotta good things comin’ my way, and I’m not afraid to say that they’re not some of them. Oh snap!

06 “Summer Babe” | Slanted & Enchanted

So I think this is pretty much unanimously considered the best thing Pavement ever did, and for once it’s a conventional wisdom that’s hard to argue with. But I will anyway. “Summer Babe” is spectacular, for sure. It’s totally effortless, feels like it might have been written on the spot, excited sideways glances between the band members, too fearful to wonder if this is it because they don’t want to jinx it, like a pitcher getting too excited in the 8th inning of a no-hitter. It also contains what I am reasonably certain is the first Swisher Sweet reference in song (“mixin’ cocktails with a plastic-tipped cigar”). It also contains a McCartney-worthy bass line. To repeat: it is spectacular. One of my favorite songs ever — by any band — and one you should download if you have never heard. But there are five Pavement songs I think are better.

05 “Frontwards” | Watery, Domestic

“I’ve got style/ Miles and miles/ So much style that it’s wasted.” It is, above all others, the definitive Pavement lyric, even though most folks would have trouble pinpointing the song from which it comes. But even without that line, “Frontwards” would belong here. The song straddles the rough amateurism of Slanted and the pop maturity of Crooked Rain, a very attractive combo. (Watery, Domestic came out between the two albums.) (Also, it’s ridiculous that AMG gives this a bad review, as this is maybe the best thing Pavement ever released. Anyway.) There’s a great hint of finality to the song, from the opening chord on. It’s always felt a bit like a eulogy to me.

04 “Grounded” | Wowee Zowee

The closest Pavement ever got to grunge — that post-chorus riff-build — another real fun downer, lots of tension, a sense of purpose. The best I can do to advocate for this song is implore you to watch this performance, which is stupendous: 

03 “Zurich Is Stained” | Slanted & Enchanted

We need to start by quoting the lyrics to this one in full. (Maybe think of “Zurich” as being a white cushion on his and his gal’s brand new, crazy expensive couch. Maybe that will help.)

I can’t sing it strong enough

That kind of strength I just don’t have

But if you watch the light change

Don’t hold them hanging

You think it’s easy, but you’re wrong

I’m not one half of the problem

Zurich is stained and it’s not my fault

Just hold me back or let me run

So what does it mean, a mistake or two

If it’s the kind of mistake no one can trace

To the fountain where we sold it

And held them hanging

You think it’s easy, but you’re wrong

I’m not one half of the problem

Zurich is stained and it’s not my fault

Just hold me back or let me run

You think it’s easy, but you’re wrong

I’m not one half of the problem

Zurich is stained and it’s not my fault

Just hold me back or let me run

The simplicity and directness of these words are great, as is the fact that Malk sings them so plainly, real flat, not a lot of feeling, just getting it down on paper. It lends the song a lot more credibility than some wrought performance might (fortunately for the song, and us, I’m not sure if Malk even has that in him). The song is really short — 101 seconds — and throughout there’s this great, really bad slide guitar squeaking and squirting in the background, which I’ve always heard as kind of an id to the vocal’s ego. Which probably sounds ridiculous, I realize, but what do you expect from a liberal arts education?

02 “Texas Never Whispers” | Watery, Domestic

More Watery, Domestic goodness. Reason why this song ranks so high: a)    The song title, which is just a spectacular bit of wording. It’s like some phrase that Peter Bogdanovich or even John Lennon would think of, and then do their best to repeat at every instance (I know I would). b)    That opening overblown guitar bit, the pedals and guitar shrieking out this almost ceremonial melody, like announcing the arrival of a foreign head of state. c)    After that drops out, Malk opens with, “Here we go/ She’s on a hidden tableau.” It just sounds cool, folks. d) “She’s so lackadaisical/ Should have been a West Coast bride.” I feel that, ya know? e)    The song is huge. There’s a spaciousness to it, an expansiveness to the arrangement. It’s wide and tall (I feel like most Pavement songs are tall but not wide). The arrangement is very impressive and mature. f)    The coda at the end with the flirting guitar solo/drum fills and the fuzz bass. g)    “This tunnel is a Tex-as mile.”

01 “Pueblo” | Wowee Zowee

So this one ain’t even close. For me, there’s “Pueblo,” one of the last songs on Wowee Zowee, and then there’s everything else. From the first moment I heard it, I was dumbstruck. Pavement never played around with tension/release — too good for it! — but here they succumbed to the temptation, concocting these really subdued but foreboding verses that would just explode into a chorus so impossibly huge, almost never-ending in its breadth thanks to two sustained guitar notes that clash and then harmonize with Malkmus’ vocals.

Kicking into the chorus is this out-of-nowhere piercing guitar dropping three notes fast — “duh-duh-duuuuuuuh” — and then it all comes rushing forward, like a stampede at 45rpm. And yet there’s not a really strong structure to it. It basically works like this: intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, post-chorus instrumental noodling that lasts for well over a minute, sorta-verse only more like a middle-eight, chorus explosion, explosion, explosion, fragments, fin. It’s just a really long tease, except with two tremendous payoffs, the second of which still astonishes me ten years later.

When I was 17 and living in the boondocks of Virginia, I had a tape that I would listen to repeatedly when driving around. I can’t remember what all was on there. I remember Pavement, Stone Roses, Breeders, Nirvana, Archers of Loaf, Oasis, things like that — the Pavement song was, obviously, “Pueblo.” One of my closest friends at the time lived on top of a mountain, and had a two-mile long gravel driveway down to a slightly larger road.

Well, one night I was driving down that road and rocking out to “Pueblo” in my stepmother’s Taurus at a pretty good clip. Singing along, pounding the steering wheel, that sort of thing. But as I got to the end of the driveway, I noticed at the last second that the gate that was almost always open — a really long, white, solitary pole — was partially closed, and was pointing into the road. I slammed on the brakes, but it was too late: I shut my eyes, and heard the sound of shattered glass and an awful tearing sound.

When I opened my eyes, I was confronted with a large white object pointing across my face. As I got my bearings, I realized that this long white pole had gone through the windshield, coming so close to my head that it had ripped the headrest behind me IN HALF. Somehow I still had my wits about me, so I very slowly backed the car up so the pole was out of the interior, and I stopped at a nearby trailer to use their phone. My family was obviously none too happy, and it was the closest I have ever come to death. And it’s all “Pueblo”’s fault. Thanks Pavement!