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Interview: Colleen

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In 2003, the Leaf label released Everyone Alive Wants Answers, the debut album by a French musician who performed as Colleen. The album received scant notice, but when it did, the response was ecstatic. Full of found sounds and warbly, trembling carnivalesque tones, Everyone is precious and precocious, a playfully morose exploration of sound as mood and emotion, as life and death.

A few weeks ago I emailed Cecile Colleen asking for an interview for this blog. She graciously accepted. Below are the ten questions that I asked and her excellent answers, all unedited. Listen to excerpts of her album here, an excellent DJ mix she did for French radio here and visit her official site here.

are you a sound conservationist? by which i mean that on everyone alive wants answers the songs seem to be not only songs but snapshots of moments in time and space that you felt an emotional pull toward. i have no idea if that question makes sense, but i have a feeling that you'll understand.

i'm not sure what you mean by sound conservationist, and i have to admit that it feels a bit strange for me to talk about songs which are now, for some of them, three years old. I know that people often talk to me about my music in terms of how it brings you to imagine things, but i have to say that when i make music, it's primarily about just that: music. But what this means for me exactly and concretely is hard to explain, because music is the most important thing in my life, whether i'm recording some songs, playing a live show, or learning to play an instrument. Basically the primary motive behind me making music is the urge to hear something and be moved by it, and reach that myself and not just by relying on other people's music. 

your ear definitely leans toward trebly, unsteady sounds. may i ask why?

I'm not sure if it's trebly sounds so much as a tendency (at least in the first album) to use filters because i love the hiss and treble range associated with old recordings — and for sure that's a love of mine, i love old things in general, old objects, gramophones, mechanical music instruments, and the like. I'm not a computer geek at all and don't spend my time marveling at all the software and gear existing. 

do you listen to music while riding public transportation? does this inspire ideas?

i do, a lot, although thanks to now working part time i have to take public transport a lot less than before, but when i play live i always use public transport to go to the place where i'm playing, so that does mean quite a bit of traveling and having time to listen to music while watching landscapes or just daydreaming. Because i've been so busy in the past year and a half, public transport has actually offered me some very valuable time off, the only time when it was ok for me to do nothing but listen to music. But I wouldn't say it inspires musical ideas as such.

how different are performing and recording to you? do you approach them differently?

Recording and performing are bound to be different if only because of where they happen, especially in my case: when i record music, i'm completely on my own, from beginning to end. No one helps me to record, and i don't ask anybody's opinion on what i'm about to record, or what i've recorded. So it's just me alone in my living room.

Of course performing is completely the opposite, it's really about giving my music to the audience and hoping that some people will be moved by it. 

The one point they do have in common is that in creative terms, they really feed each other: i want to create new pieces because i don't want to play the same things over and over again in the live shows, especially if it's in a city where i've played before, and part of those new pieces might end up being recorded, perhaps for a future release. Or if i've recorded something, i'll try to see how i can come up with some kind of live version of it (if it's technically feasible — sometimes it's just not possible).

They are two different facets of making music but i really enjoy them both.

are your performances successful? are you happy with them?

i have to say that so far, over the course of two years, i've been a very happy performer nine times out of ten: occasionally i will have some awful technical problems, or an audience with a couple of difficult members (this is sometimes enough to ruin it for everyone, especially the other members of the audience who just want to enjoy the music in peace — and my music does require silence), but apart from that i feel i've been incredibly lucky with audiences and how my live shows have been received.

I love the immediacy of live playing, the give and response that you rarely have with a record, except if people write to you to tell you that they love it.

There are always things that i could have played better during a show, so i often have the feeling that i could have done better, but then again i don't obsess over it, perfection in playing is not what live shows are about or certainly not what MY live shows are about, and i don't think that's what people come to see me for, so i always judge a show by what i felt (was i enjoying myself when i was playing? did i manage to forget that i was doing this strange thing — performing in front of people — and enjoy the music i was making?) and how the audience responded. If they seemed happy then i'm happy too.

when will you return to the uk and when will you finally hit the us?

i will return to the UK as soon as someone offers me to play a show there this year, and the same goes for the US! It has been quieter over the past few months in terms of live playing for me because i was concentrating on recording the second album, and i think that you do need a break from time to time, if only to regain the sense of wonder at the opportunity of traveling and meeting people and how lucky i've been to be able to bring my music to people elsewhere; it's all too easy for it to turn into a routine and forget about how special live playing is.

can you sing? are there little snippets of words that you have written that make you want to add vocals to your music? do those get used as song titles instead?

Good question: can I sing? Well i still don't know the answer to that, it's a mixture of yes and no right now, though actually i've taken up singing again rather recently (i used to sing as a teenager, but mostly for myself and mostly other bands' songs); right now i'm learning songs by John Dowland, who was one of the greatest English composers of the late 16th century - early 17th century, he made those incredibly beautiful lute songs which have something very minimal and modern about them. The plan with them is that i'll ultimately also learn to play the guitar in a lute-like fashion (the scores i have are transcriptions of the lute parts for classical guitar).

I find it all very exciting and i think it was bound to happen since i just feel like trying every single instrument on planet earth, and the voice is one of them.

I have no idea though if i will ever sing other than in the privacy of my home.

As for words i have a bit of a problem with them — even giving titles to my songs just seems to take me forever. They usually come from novels, are inspired by events in my own life, and for the second album by Dowland's lyrics.

is there a new album on the way? if so, what will it be called and when will it be released?

The second album will be out on Leaf in June 2005 and will be called « the golden morning breaks » (a quote from a song by John Dowland). There is also a recording of a live session which I did for Dutch national radio VPRO which will be released on Dutch label Staalplaat in the Mort aux Vaches series, probably in September 2005.

how strong an emotional attachment do you feel toward your music? do you think of it as an extension of you or as simply a way that you express yourself?

The attachment i feel towards my music is very much part of a broader attachment that i have for music in general, in all its forms. It encompasses the music that i listen to and which is very varied (from 60s pop and folk to jazz to baroque to late 19th century / first half of 20th century composers, early electronic music, music from all over the world, especially South East Asia, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot of things), but also the music that i try to play on instruments that i'm currently learning (the cello for a year and a half, now the piano, the clarinet soon, and bits and bobs here and there), whether it's pieces by other composers or me fooling around and trying to come up with something for my own use. But I also love reading about the history of and the stories behind music, how music has evolved over the course of the centuries, the life of composers and musicians, mechanical music, the social context behind music, instrument-making and instrument evolution… And of course making my own music is also very important!

When you really love music it's just endless really, and that's what makes it so exciting and fresh: the more you learn, the more you find out about other things to learn about. 

do you have a job? and if so, what?

I teach English in a high school; since September last year i've been doing that part time and it's been a real improvement in my quality of life, and i feel all the luckier because not only do i have a lot more free time than before, but the time i do spend at school is very enjoyable this year because my pupils are on the whole a really good bunch (not good in terms of their English but in terms of their personality).

I'll probably be back to a more hectic lifestyle when the second album is released, but right now i'm having a really great time just listening to music, playing the cello and piano, reading and watching films and spending time with the people i love, so i feel really lucky.

"Here I Am," Dolly Parton

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When Dolly Parton shouts "HERE I AM!" in the song of the same name, a woman emerges from the cocoon of girlishness. You can hardly imagine a phrase sounding more powerful or meaningful. These words have physical power, especially as they come tumbling out of the painted mouth of a pretty Southern girl whose voice lilts with each syllable in an involuntary act of self-protection, concealing her intelligence with an "aw shucks," keeping her mouth open wide, losing her own identity in that of her performing partner Porter Wagoner, trying to follow the rules of a working-class genre even as her mere appearance shattered them.

"Here I Am" appears on Coat of Many Colors, Dolly's first hit record, released in 1971. It seems a natural lead-off track — proud, assertive, bombastic — but instead it's tucked in a cupboard as the penultimate song. And as powerful as her proclamation sounds, it's tempered somewhat by the other lyrics, where Dolly divulges that she's here to help and love, not to get what she wants. The patriarchy can live another day.

But her offers to comfort and mother wither in the face of such obscenity. Look at that album cover, where an asexual child (Dolly? Joseph?) smiles without reservation clad in a drab smock of brown and blue. It mocks the title. For poor mountain folk like Dolly, many equals two. A coat of two colors, ain't I proud? The easy shuffle of the title track finds Dolly relishing her poverty, her "patches on my britches/ holes in my shoes" as her classmates laugh at her. "I couldn't understand it/ For I felt I was rich/ And I told them all the love my momma sewed in every stitch," she coos, shaken with fear but not shame, because this gal has the love of momma and Jesus in the hem of her garment. Thou shall not covet, nor shall thou be ashamed.

Within the context of the album, "Here I Am" seems less about Dolly's self-identification as a woman and more about finding a man who will be a husband and finding a hat on which to hang her heart. But there's an ambition in her voice — her eyes shut tight but her fists balled tighter — that no amount of homemaker dreaming can hide. This is Rosy the Riveter with two-dollar boots, hundred-dollar looks and a few thousand songs in her head. No man can quench that yearning, though many are dumb enough to try, blind to the fierceness that lurks behind those easy eyes and hungry breasts, and unable to recognize the sad sag of a smile that can never be satisfied.

96 Tiers

I love a lot of bad music. Well maybe not bad, but definitely unspectacular. In the same way that the film world has its genre movies — pictures that aspire to nothing more than exhibiting certain characteristics particular to a certain style — music has genre albums, records that hardly evolve or add much to a sound, but perhaps slightly better or tighten its conventions.

In criticism, there's an understandable tendency to reward those who find a new way to make a dollar out of a nickel. Whether it be genre-collapsing, surprising vocal phrasings or a new guitar sound, critics always have an ear out for the new, the unfamiliar. Listening to hundreds of new songs everyday will do that to you. It's a noble goal.

But in the eternal quest for the new, the familiar sometimes gets shafted. Even if a song sounds like a hundred other songs, it's rarely exactly the same. It's far more likely that a weary listener will pick up on what's familiar rather than what isn't. The Strokes, to cite a prominent example, fell victim to this. (Even I was guilty of it.) There are signifiers in the Strokes' music that suggest a particular time and place, and for critics wary of the highly touted (which significantly ups the expectations), those similarities defined the band even though their songwriting allows them to surpass their aesthetic limitations. It's far easier to hear who they aren't than who they are.

One of my favorite records of all time is of little consequence: Tragedy by the Vehicle Birth. The Vehicle Birth were a quintet from Boston and D.C. who played post-hardcore/math-rock and released the one album on Crank! in 1998. If the band had released Tragedy in 1993, they would be legends. But instead of laying the groundwork for post-hardcore, the Vehicle Birth merely painted the window trimming and sanded a few banisters. They aren't important figures in the creation of the genre, yet they recorded one of its best albums. Shouldn't that count for something?

Well, yes and no. We critics prize the pioneers, the people who watched everyone else go left and went right instead. Which, when writing in a historical context, we should. But in terms of listening, what's more important, those who did it first or those who did it best? I'm reminded of an interview I did with the UK band Clinic a few years ago:


Strickler: With rock writers and serious fans there's definitely a hierarchy that places people who did something first over people who did it best. Do you think there should be that much importance placed on the originator? 

Blackburn: Yeah, I'd say so. I'm sure there are exceptions, but doing music it's quite easy to take elements of the originator, what they've done, and add your own pieces to it. The true talent is to come up with something which people haven't heard before. That's where the imagination is. A pretty obvious example — take the Velvet Underground and then the Modern Lovers and Stooges, which is still really, really good. But you have to credit, within that line of bands, the Velvets as being the most worthy to listen to.

There's something to that, but if we set our standards that high, there's little to celebrate and we're left with things like Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums list, which is great for a historical crash course in the development of Anglo pop music, but maybe not to actually listen to. This is not to suggest killing the aura of the originator (though in certain cases I'm there), but to be more hesitant to damn an album solely because it fails to break new ground. Not everyone can be a shepherd.

"The Plot Against America," Philip Roth

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File Under: Remember when Republicans didn't mind Hitler?

Philip Roth's The Plot Against America documents the creeping American fascism that almost was. While fascism is commonly associated with goose-stepping soldiers, book burnings, and Mussolini podium-poundings, the bureaucratic brand of autocratic governing can be far more frightening. Wrapped up in red tape like a Christmas gift, institutional fascism's deceptive everyday banality can render its doubters Chicken Littles — even as the stratosphere plummets to earth.

From the perspective of his seven-year-old self, Roth imagines the Nazi-sympathizing aviator Charles Lindbergh beating Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and the Hitler-collaborating administration that ensues. The Roths' New Jersey household — father Herman, mother Bess, brother Sandy, and Philip — reacts with fear and revulsion to America's possible slither toward Nazi pogroms, finding solace solely among other Jews and in gossip columnist Walter Winchell's weekly Lindy-baiting radio show.

But when new federal policies result in Sandy being shipped off to Kentucky, the Roth nest begins to crumble: daily rituals disappear, friends leave for Canada, and the FBI begins investigating the family. The hysteria cuts to Philip's aching heart as he vacillates between trusting his father's increasingly paranoid rants and the government's patronizing reassurances to the Jewish community, which are readily accepted by the goyim. 

Waking up a stranger in a familiar land is trying enough for adults, but for children — who grasp at familiarity like it was a life preserver — the ordeal is doubly hard. Especially when your nation's flag becomes a villain's cape billowing beneath swastika fireworks.

"Baby's on Fire"

Over the past two days I have done nothing but listen to four different versions of a song called "Baby's On Fire." The first is the original version by Brian Eno; the second is a cover by German DJ Superpitcher; the third is by a Satanic industrial dance band called Electric Hellfire Club; and the fourth is a just-released remix of Superpitcher's cover.

Brian Eno, "Baby's On Fire"

From his 1974 solo debut, Here Come the Warm Jets, "Baby's On Fire" has always entranced with its two-chord churn, sado-masochistic lyrics (one interpretation, anyway), fascist, proto-glam stomp-rhythms and Steve Vai-esque dual guitar solo that comprises the song's center. Yet it's the ambiguity in Eno's voice — he's kinda pissed, kinda drunk, kinda horny, kinda ambivalent, kinda taunting — that ultimately makes the song.

Superpitcher, "Baby's On Fire"

One of the key people on the German house label Kompakt's roster, Superpitcher plays up the proto-glam elements of Eno's original via the schaffel beat, a wavering, shuffling rhythm made popular most recently by the Kompakt crew. The vocal inflections are a bit softer than Eno's — the biting consonants and exclamation pointed-lines are replaced by easy sways and soft slurs. Combined with the pulsating rhythm and the Moroder-esque keyboard teeter-totters, the vocals flash the word "sex" via wet fog-mitigated neon splendor.

Electric Hellfire Club, "Baby's On Fire"

The My Life with the Thrill Kill Cut offshoot stays true to its industrial roots with its version of Eno's classic. Oddly, the EHC version is much more musically faithful to the original recording than Superpitcher's, which seems more faithful ideologically. The differences between EHC and Superpitcher's approaches reveal a lot about the original recording: primarily that both the sexual and violent interpretations of the song's chief lyric ("Baby's on fire/ Better throw her in the water/ Look at her laughing/ Like a heifer to a slaughter") are "correct."

But what the fuck's up with the sexism of those opening couplets? The more I read them, the more disgusting they seem, and the more I wonder if they are why so many acts have covered this song, and if, deep down, why I haven't been able to escape it of late. I've found that if I make those lyrics the song's center (as in I make myself fully conscious of what Eno/whoever-is-covering-this is singing), the track is much more predatorial than you might expect. The two-chord riff feels less like fucking and more like hunting. I can easily imagine Ted Bundy hearing this song as he cruises the early-morning pavement.

Taking lyrics too literally, of course, is almost always a problem. But there's certainly a menace to the song (it's, at least in part, what makes it so intriguing), and the Electric Hellfire Club succeed in emphasizing that angle, but not much else.

Superpitcher, "Baby's On Fire (The WB's Remix)"

This takes the vocals from Superpitcher's version and places them over an entirely new track that bears resemblance to "Baby's On Fire" at first, but which later includes a very close approximation of the Velvet Underground's "Waiting for the Man" (if not the song itself). Hypnotic, stoic and pensive, this incarnation conveys absolutely nothing aside the universal truth of a thick bass bump's eternal groove. For the creepy and exhilarating outro, the song eases back to a bass line and a hand clap that sound almost exactly like a heartbeat.

Unlike the three other versions of the song included here, all of which essentially maintain a holding pattern for their entirety, the Superpitcher/WB's cover has a linear progression. It doesn't just shuffle in place, it actually travels — adding and subtracting layers, slightly altering the beat, bringing in new melodies and counter-melodies. The only constant is that vocal line. Sometimes it sounds completely detached, other times engaged, but no matter what, it never stops marching forward.

"Under Control," The Strokes

In his current New Yorker article on the Clash, Sasha Frere-Jones perfectly pinpoints a sensation that I often search for in music. To describe London Calling, SFJ writes, "Each of us is invincible when it's playing," and in describing the title track he writes, "If you can listen to it without getting a chilly burst of immortality, there is a layer between you and the world."

When I've tried to vocalize that very specific feeling, I've found myself either using the word "timeless" or referring to "songs that are bigger than songs."* These poor attempts at exposition always fail; Frere-Jones succeeds in explaining the feeling because he removes the ownership from the song and the listener, as if the reaction wasn't exactly created by the piece of music or a person's response, but exists somewhere in the ether between eight-inch woofers and a set of perked ears.

The most recent song to hit me this way is the Strokes' "Under Control." It sounds like something Dan Penn could have written, a country-blues song reconfigured for Scotty Moore's echoing hollow-body licks, where death and loneliness victimize suits, 9-to-5ers and the unhip, but not our fearless performers, who sing into cans and metal boxes to preserve their immortality. It is timeless not only in its era-spanning sound, but in its refusal to belong to any era at all. Says Revelations 22:13, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End." Says Julian Casablancas, "The end has no end the end has no end."

The last few days I've been listening obsessively to songs that create this same sort of feeling for me, and I've found that, for the most part, they are ballads played as rockers or rockers sung as ballads, and that they are almost always led by a worn male vocal. I suspect that every listener will have a different set of parameters based on his or her taste, but I also suspect that there are universal qualities to these songs that will find at least the slightest resonance in every listener.

So what is it that we hear? Why has Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" made me instantly nostalgic, even during the very first time I heard it? Why does New Order's "Ceremony" make me feel like the best dancer in the world? Why does Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" make the world stand still? Why does the Rolling Stones' "Sweet Virginia" bring me so close to tears? There are personal associations and storylines and knots of signifiers that build a web impossible to escape (19 and drunk on New Year's Eve, sitting on my best friend's front porch bellowing "Sweet Virginia" with six other country boys to the hickory wind), but some songs come with them intrinsically, like hearing a bass line and knowing it will find its way into Dr. Dre's library by next summer.

Putting together a list of invincible/immortal/timeless songs would be an enormous project, but it's one that piques my curiosity, primarily because I'm curious to hear what other listeners respond to, and whether I will react similarly. If you have a moment, please let me know of any songs that make you feel instantly cool and unfuckwithable via email or the comment box, and if you care to explain why, I'll post your description in this space. Thanks.

Note: This didn't quite flow in the main body of text, but let me explain what I mean by "songs that are bigger than songs." Some songs seem way bigger than the three-minute pop format. Some songs feel so full of emotion and story and character that they need accompanying books, movies, interviews and even other songs about them to properly sum up the power held within that three-minute barrier. All of the songs I mention in this post fall into that category. The songs turn me into an information completist: I find myself wanting to know studio dates, intimate details of what the recording sessions were like, what they ate, what sort of paper the lyrics were written on, etc. Some songs just need more documentation, or else I sometimes fear that those intangible qualities will one day float away onto some other track and we will be left with only a chord progression, a voice and a beat.

Rough Guide to the Fall

01 "That Man" (The Legendary Chaos Tape)
02 "Living Too Late" (Bend Sinister)
03 "Janet Vs Johnny" (The Real New Fall LP)
04 "Cruisers Creek" (This Nation's Saving Grace)
05 "Garden" (Live in Reykjavik)
06 "Pay Your Rates" (Palace of Swords Reversed)
07 "Prole Art Threat" (Totally Wired)
08 "Classical" (Hex Enduction Hour)
09 "New Face in Hell" (The Legendary Chaos Tape)
10 "Middle Mass" (Slates)
11 "How I Wrote 'Elastic Man'" (Palace of Swords Reversed)
12 "L.A." (This Nation's Saving Grace)
13 "Fortress/Deer Park" (Hex Enduction Hour)
14 "Victoria" (458489 A Sides)
15 "Hey! Student" (Middle Class Revolt)
16 "Paint Work" (This Nation's Saving Grace)
17 "Hip Priest" (Hip Priest and Kamerads)

"The Partisan," Leonard Cohen and "Tezeta," Mahmoud Ahmed

There are pop songs for war and there are pop songs against war, but there are few pop songs about war. "The Partisan" is a French folk song written during World War II that gained popularity in both Paris and London. It's written from the point of view of a French resister, a man who faces inevitable defeat but whose sense of nationalism and even personal pride prevents him from succumbing to the shame of death. "When they poured across the border/ I was cautioned to surrender/ This I could not do/ I took my gun and vanished," the song begins.

Leonard Cohen covered this folk song on his second album, Songs From a Room, released in 1969. Accompanied by acoustic guitar, bass, mouth harp and, later, a small French chorus, Cohen sings the song plainly — no word stressed more than any other, just a story of death and accidental life, how it was and will forever be. "There were three of us this morning/ I'm the only one this evening/ But still I must go on," he sings with a lack of inflection that hides trauma and weariness that we pray our children will never know.

The bass line, strong and regular, opens the song like a heartbeat — DUH-duh DUH-duh DUH-duh, it pounds — before the rapidly fingerpicked guitar joins it. The bass' plods feel oversized for the song (so forceful, so loud) and almost mechanized (like a metronome), creating a relationship between the two of predator and prey: the guitar sounds as if it's fleeing the bass, its strings vibrating like legs pumping for escape.

Cohen is an extremely sympathetic narrator in "The Partisan." He's the reluctant warrior, a man pushed to limits that were previously unknown to him, a normal laborer presented with an impossible task. But unlike the action heroes of the cinema, this is cause not for celebration or even hope. It's another day in a long winter whose thaw may never come.

In comparison to Cohen, Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed sounds impossibly weak on "Tezeta," a song he recorded in Addis Ababa in the '70s. Ahmed is a wounded man. Within the context of "The Partisan," he would have been the sort to have hidden in an attic, abandoned his family and escaped notice. Surviving, but with the bodies of his wife and children draped across his shoulders, his decaying flesh and blood the yoke he must forever carry as he takes another tug from a bottle.

The word "tezeta" translates to bittersweet nostalgia; there isn't an appropriate English equivalency. In Ethiopian music, tezeta songs are essentially the blues, except that even when love has died and hearts are shattered, there are still hints of hope because the memory of the love — no matter how spoilt — exists, and for that there can be cautious rejoicing.

In "Tezeta," Ahmed mourns contentedly over slight organ sighs and bongo splatters, an easy gait earned by pain and memories that, however hard he may try, cannot be forgotten. Ahmed's voice wavers over each syllable, every one a struggle and another hit to his ego. These are no glancing blows. They leave him punchdrunk by a roadside, his life in tatters and his only possession these raw images of a past so immediate that it doubles as his future. But for us, the witnesses to his destruction, his songs of torment are guiltily invigorating, and try as we might, we cannot help but to listen again and again.

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!