If you have a list of alternative icons you’d love to get into but don’t know where to start, get ready to cross some of them off with our new feature PRIMER, in which we guide you through the highs, lows, and occasional confusing bits of the careers of renowned indie icons. This week: Pavement
There isn’t a huge secret to Pavement, per se. When I tried to explain to a friend why he should listen to them, I wasn’t able to really articulate it past, “They rock!” I’d probably say Pavement is the band you’d present to aliens if they wanted to know what “indie-rock” is. Which is why I say there is no secret—they are guitar rock, pure and simple, but that’s also what made them standout. Lead by Stephen Malkmus, the five-piece consisting of Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg on guitar (and penning some songs), Mark Ibold on bass, Steve West on drums (who joined after Gary Young’s short stint with Slanted and Enchanted), and Bob Nastanovich yelping and using doohickeys changed the musical landscape without trying too hard.
And that’s the basis of Pavement: They are deeply committed to being half-hearted.
I heard about Pavement off-handedly, without any of the context of possibly being the greatest band to ever emerge from the 90s, which in retrospect was the best thing that could’ve happened. I just heard that, “They’re supposed to be good,” because All-Music said so (I didn’t bother to read the reviews), so I thought, “Sure, why not?” I downloaded their discography, (which only consists of five albums) without thinking too much about it, and then let it sit for a few weeks.
In the interim, I was prepping to move, getting ready to leave behind friends (and eventually family). Transitory and nervous, I put my headphones on while sitting on the carpet of my mom’s empty bedroom and decided to try out these Pavements I’d heard so much about. “Silence Kit” kicked in—I was instantly hooked. The messy shamble of instruments attempting to assemble into pop coherency, Malkmus reaching for that high note, not quite making it and not giving a shit—they were confident in being ragged. And, oddly enough, it was the remedy for depression—songs teeming with irreverence, humor, and ambivalence, and culminating (for me and a whole mess of people) with “Gold Soundz,” and the unforgettable kicker: “Because you’re empty and I’m empty/And you can never quarantine the past.” “Gold Soundz” perfectly encapsulates Pavement, containing many of their tropes (Steve West’s signature drum fill, perfect pop sensibility, etc.), but mostly it showed that underneath the ironic posturing is something kind of serious—how do you deal with the abstract absurdity of the music scene, your own emotions (for me, the pain of moving on), the decay of the world? Playful nonsense, coupled with precision.
That’s the essence of what makes Pavement so alluring—their liminality. They are between everything, in multiple senses, most obviously because they emerged in 1989, between decades and coming to eventually capture a sound that was perfect for the disaffected youth of the 90s. But, musically, they verge between arty-experimental freak-outs and pure-pop rock bliss, inanely playful wordplay and intellectually and history laden musings, and ironic-uncaring attitude with some honest to goodness sincerity (not to mention fan boy-ism, especially Malkmus’ well known love for R.E.M.). Over the course of their short career, Pavement took a stab at every guitar-based genre and made it work, because it was done with admiration for their forbearers and lackadaisical humor.
“Gold Soundz” lyrics served as the title for the band’s retrospective compilation, which coincided with the announcement of their reunion tour in 2010. It’s a rather ironic title for a band that’s become more popular now than their hey-day, while frontman Malkmus remains seemingly uninterested in returning to his past at all. But that’s beside the point, because ultimately Pavement has always been championed by fans, rather than by Pavement.
There are some bonafide hits that will make anyone swoon, but what follows below is what got me into the band (which will undoubtedly overlap with a good many people). Hopefully it’ll do the same for you
“Summer Babe (Winter Version)” from Slanted and Enchanted
“Here” from Slanted and Enchanted
“Shoot the Singer” from Slanted and Enchanted era
“Silence Kit” from Crooked Rain Crooked Rain
“Stop Breathin’” from Crooked Rain Crooked Rain
“Grounded” from Wowee Zowee
“Kennel District” from Wowee Zowee
“Stereo” from Brighten the Corners
“Harness Your Hopes” from Brighten the Corners era
“Spit on a Stranger” from Terror Twilight