Thursday, August 30, 2007

Box Elder

When I told my brother that we were moving to Misery, he responded, "You'll have to find Box Elder." Sadly, I don't think Box Elder, MO exists. And if it did, I'm not sure that's really where SM and the boys intended to go.

Even if they didn't actually want to go to Misery, "Box Elder" perfectly encapsulates the feeling of being young and bored with your surroundings, so much that you just want "to get the fuck out of this town."

The is a narrative describing the last conversation with a girlfriend as a guy realizes he has to leave his little town and its dull comfort. It has little to do with the other person in the room and more to do with that "distant voice" calling the protagonist to leave. He has other things to do and places to go. If he stays in this old, familiar setting, he'll burst. His mind wanders as he finally decides to skip town. The Box Elder part might just be the irony of heading to another crappy small town. Who knows?

Recorded in Gary Young's home "studio", the band began its humble career with this clever, 2-and-half-minute ditty. The production is lo-fi and scrappy. The guitars jingle and jangle over feedback and Gary Young's steady beats carry you out of town. This song was among the first ever recorded in Pavement's history, making its way on their debut release, Slay Tracks (1933-1969).

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Serpentine Pad

"Serpentine Pad" always felt like Pavement's take on the Sex Pistols. SM sings in this phony British accent about fighting the corporations and some other nonsense over a hap-hazard performance by the other band members. It may be the closest thing the band ever did to a 1977-ish punk song about the anti-establishment.

The music is bottom heavy as Ibold drives the song and the feedback-happy guitars take a back seat. Besides Malkmus' poor Johnny Rotten impersonation, this is one of the clearest recordings of Nastanovich's screaming back-up vocals.

Pavement's humor truly comes through on "Serpentine Pad". From the sloppy guitar work to the fake accent to the silly punk rock lyrics, this track demonstrates how the band can make you wanna' rock out as well as giggle. A song like "Serpentine Pad" convinces me that this band never took itself too seriously, and that's refreshing.

(Sorry for the clip. It was all I could find.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Our Singer

The end of Slanted and Enchanted comes in the form of "Our Singer", and it's just what SM has been waiting for: the horizon of Pavement's first full-length release brought to us by Gary Young's sloppy drumming. It's a victorious conclusion to an album that would later be touted as one of the decade's best. (Whatever that means.) It felt like SM was triumphantly proclaiming that an age of disappointment was upon us.

"I've dreamt of this, but it never comes."
Disappointment? It's what Generation X is/was about. Let's lower our expectations and strive for greatness that never comes. This album brought in the slacker generation as well as anything grunge or Beck could conjure.

The nineties were full contradictions that demonstrated Gen X's ambition to fall just short. An idealistic Bill Clinton left his legacy on a plump interne's dress. All the indie bands full of integrity jumped for major labels and then came crawling back drug-addicted and broke. The rebirth of John Hughes-influenced movies only sent us into a tailspin of crappy teenage flicks with no angst and no Peter Gabriel. Internet start-ups made some major cash for Gen X only to have the bubble burst before the millennium. The nineties failed to meet our lowered expectations over and over.

Pavement thrived in this environment. Gary Young could not play, and Stephen Malkmus could not sing. They perfectly reflected the times. "Our Singer" stated SaE's place in making the nineties the slacker of all decades.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


"What about the voice of Geddy Lee?/How did it get so high?/I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy/I know him and he does/Then you're my fact checking cuz"

These were the lyrics I'd recite everyday to Brittany, a plump fifth grader in my second year of teaching. I'd ponder about the voice of Geddy Lee, and she'd respond that he does, in fact, have a high-pitched voice. Of course, it helped that her parents were huge Rush fans and had named Brittany's older brother after the falsetto-singing, bass guitar virtuoso from Toronto. Undoubtedly, Brittany's parents became big fans of Geddy Lee's unique delivery while listening to songs like "Tom Sawyer" or "Working Man" on FM rock stations.

"Stereo" is Pavement's version of R.E.M.'s collaboration with KRS-One in 1991's "Radio Song". SM's delivery is somewhat rap-like but with absurdity dominating his narrative as opposed to the overtly political message of "Radio Song". Instead of complaining about the shortcomings of corporate radio, Pavement chooses to marvel at the diversity of ridiculousness found all across the dial, including their own songs.

The lyrics highlight some amusing anecdotes that illustrate this variety. Observations of farm reports, sports call-in shows, and conservative talk radio with the ever-present classic rock dominate SM's listening experience. This multitude of material is only broken when the band hears their own song on the radio and (somewhat predictably) goes wild with delight.

As Brighten the Corners' opener, "Stereo" demonstrates a much more focused band with a more conventional sound (for radio possibly?) than the previous release, Wowee Zowee. Maybe the band backed off the weed or actually rehearsed together, but whatever they did, BtC marks a point in the band's history when the songs began to resemble a more traditional rock sound that could find a place on radio. (This, of course, ignores the fact that "Cut Your Hair" was a minor radio hit.) Although, it was still their own version of that tradition, BtC wasn't anything like the classic rock, including Rush.

Friday, August 10, 2007


"Greenlander" appeared on the compilation Born to Choose in 1993. I have often thought of this song as one of the top 5 quintessential hidden indie gems of the early 90's. Born was a compilation put out by Rykodisc to support NARAL and other women's charities. R.E.M., Tom Waits, and others also contributed to the comp.

I discovered the song at about the same time I was discovering a world of music beyond radio and MTV. I wrote a letter in response to some liner notes on a 7" by this Columbus band, Tiara (whom Isaac Brock would tell me several years later were "fucking awesome".) In my letter, I called them "Pavement-esque" which they appreciated being that Pavement was a major influence. Also, I sent two blank tapes for some additional songs. Tiara graciously filled both tapes. One of the tracks was a cover of "Greenlander" that actually rivals the original. Needless to say, my siblings and I wore that tape out and still talk about it from time to time.

Strangely enough, my girlfriend left me for the bassist in Tiara. We had a long, slow good-bye that ended on a cold New Year's Eve at a Waffle House.

The song describes a couple performing ceremonies in the arctic wilderness of Greenland in hopes of cementing their lives together. The cold and darkness are metaphors for their icy relationship as it creeps to an end despite their best hopes and efforts. SM even describes a future of ice skating and children that will never happen. Mistakes are made and no amount of tradition or ceremony can stop the relationship from ending.

The music is pretty straightforward despite the obvious tuning that, to me at the time, sounded so foreign and bizarre when stripped down. The tunings and tempo help feed into the slow descent of the described relationship. It's sad but beautiful, sort of how I picture Greenland.

These images conjured up by the words and music of "Greenlander" represent that depressing winter for me perfectly.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Folk Jam

I remember reading a review for Terror Twilight and how the jam band inside of Pavement, which had been festering for several years in their live act, was ready to unleash itself upon an unsuspecting fan base. References to Phish and the Grateful Dead were being thrown around. This was after the so-called "classic rock" ode that was Brighten the Corners was released in '97.

I don't care what the critics write. Pavement can never be labeled as "classic rock" or a "jam band". Sure, the band had classic moments and often liked to carry on a jam two or three minutes too long, but are they really compatible with the Dead or Zeppelin? I think not.

In their constant drive to define Pavement, critics attached these limiting labels to our heroes in order to make sense of why we love them. Maybe the fact that they were so undefinable makes them so beloved. I've been just as guilty of this as any real critic, but I've accepted that Pavement is just Pavement (with a nod to the Fall).

Regardless, the reviews and a song titled "Folk Jam" worried me. Were they literally trying to play a folky-jammy sort of mishmash? Was this their last hurrah of pot-induced folky, hippie jams? Of course not.

"Folk Jam" opens with this rolling tempo of guitars and drums that reminds one of a Garcia song until SM breaks in with his classically humorless delivery of a humorous tale. The protagonist wants something more out of his family history and life than what is there. The song celebrates the universal shortcomings of family. (This is either a jab SM's aging band mates or a lament of his own wasted life.)

The folky part primarily refers to the song's aesthetics, not so much the message. Despite the sound, your'e quickly reminded that this is a true Pavement song with lines like "Well, pardon my birth/I just slipped out" and "Beware the head of state says that she believes in leprechauns/Irish folktales scare the shit out of me". These have to be two of my favorite lines in their entire catalog.