Where the Sidewalk Ends

Photo: Gail Butensky/Courtesy of Matador Records

Ten years ago, our nation’s two leading rock critics declared the premier band of the era to be nothing but indolent hacks. “These dudes aren’t trying hard enough,” said Beavis, or possibly Butt-head, as the cartoon pair watched the video for “Cut Your Hair,” Pavement’s breakthrough single from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. The dude had a point.

The video now stands as one of the most remarkably half-assed slouches toward stardom in history. It was set at a barbershop and featured guitarist Scott Kannberg in a gorilla suit. You get the idea. While there were a few surrealist sight gags, the real joke was that Pavement was in a video … on MTV! Get it?Butt-head didn’t. Nor did his constituents, who turned out to be numerous. Ten years ago, Pavement was poised—like Beck and a few others—to pick up the scepter from rock’s great nineties emancipators, Nirvana. So, like Beck, the Pavement boys took the stage at Lollapalooza ’95, brought their airy jams and arcane wordplay to the newly enlightened masses, and got the same reaction Beck did: boos, flung mud, and hurled water bottles.

“There was some hubris going on and sour indie rash,” recalls Pavement’s singer-songwriter, Stephen Malkmus. “Oh, and some true fear as well.” But fear and disdain notwithstanding, Malkmus & Co. did venture far enough out of their hipster comfort zone to produce 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, the band’s creative and commercial watershed, now the subject of an encyclopedic reissue.

Like Matador’s 2002 reissue of Pavement’s first major release, Slanted and Enchanted, this one compiles B-sides, rehearsal tapes, and other period arcana, adding eleven singles, eight songs recorded with original drummer Gary Young, and 25 previously unavailable tracks.

With its artfully flip dismissal of pop convention, Pavement seems an unlikely candidate for such rapt canonizing. But the sound and eloquence of Crooked Rain more than justify Matador’s loving re-creation of the disc.

Prior to Crooked Rain, Pavement was a faceless amalgam of indie-rock reflexes in some of their purest forms: critically acclaimed melodic noise-rock, a throwaway band name, a weakness for collage cover art. Scenesters embraced it all as an instant byword for coolness, and the band exulted in what one song called “miles and miles of style.”

That kind of aura is hard to give up. But with Crooked Rain, Pavement showed a lot more commitment, focus, and even humility than any college D.J. could have anticipated. Eight seconds into the album, as the shambling-yet-momentous “Silence Kit” coheres into an assured, heart-tugging chord progression, Malkmus abruptly overthrows his pop-prankster birthright, bursting in vocally with true rock sprezzatura. With its cleaner, bigger sound and instrumental variety, the recording tapped directly into Pavement’s soul, which turned out to be as aching and alive as any Passion play screamed by the band’s grungier contemporaries.

Much of the balance of the record mixes blithe word games with carefully culled bits of social observation and biographical detail. Songs like “Range Life” and “Gold Soundz” speak directly to Pavement’s pop plight, capturing the bittersweet moment when success, disillusion, rapture, and irritation dizzyingly converged into that moment many of us now refer to as “the nineties.” If, as you sit iPod-ing on the subway, with the latest E! scandal or blog rant still staining your retina, and the plaintive “Gold Soundz” chorus, “We need secrets back right now,” brings no lump to your throat—well, you’re a cooler soul than me. Alternate versions of “Range Life,” with its different lyrics, and “Heaven Is a Truck,” with its prettier, sparer setting, will reward fans. But the new material is mainly notable for showing the band workshopping its sound.

Still, Pavement’s discomfiture with rock celebrity was clearly real, in a way that seems quite foreign now. In the liner notes, Malkmus considers the sentiment “I really do not like myself much and feel guilty for even expressing myself”—one of the era’s standard white-boy confessional moves. “I feel like that,” he admits, but then shrugs. “What can you do? Love yourself and start to live.”

Not quite the snide posturing of a hipster ironist. But it wouldn’t mean nearly as much without a song like “Cooling by Sound,” a raucously buoyant B-side from the “Range Life” single, whose chorus offers the most eloquent translation of the era, style, and scene that Pavement ruled: “I’m coolin’ by the sound / I’m coolin’ by the sound,” it begins. Then it ends with a fillip as catchy as it is irrefutable: “I’m cooler than you / Doot’n’doo-doo /Doot’n’doo-doo.” Miles of style to this day.

  Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was recorded in August 1993 in a windowless eighteenth-story apartment above a record store on West 30th Street, with the owner’s blow-up bed in the corner. The closing swipe of one song on the album, “Range Life” (“Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins / Nature kids, they don’t have no function / I don’t understand what they mean / And I could really give a fuck”), supposedly sparked a feud that left Pavement off the 1994 Lollapalooza bill. The album’s “Cut Your Hair” was the band’s sole top-ten hit, but the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau still declared Pavement “the finest rock band of the ’90s.” 

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: L.A.’s Desert Origins
Matador. Two-Disc Set.

Where the Sidewalk Ends