Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Pavement — Slanted and Enchanted

No songwriter better exemplifies that old maxim our mothers used to tell us, "It's not what you said but how you said it" like Stephen Malkmus of Pavement. Scarcely any songs of the band's earliest (and best, though Pavement maintained such a standard of quality that the distinction is a matter only for die-hards) recordings hold up to any lyrical scrutiny, with unhelpful liner notes only offering one of countless misdirections and the obscurity of the lines themselves never letting on whether the group was sincere or taking the piss.

When processed through the band, however, these floating reveries of sub-Bowie free association become intense and universal, the soundtrack of the suburbs in a way that neither glamorizes bourgeois life nor, and this is important, condescends to the stifling ennui of middle-class conformity. Plenty of Malkmus' lyrics are hip and sardonic, but the manner in which he can cast his irony aside for a moment of sincerity without warning suggests that the real joke is acting as if he doesn't care.

After making a handful of EPs that hinted at Pavement's direction but lacked even the cohesion of their early, looser albums, Malkmus finally bolstered the spare lineup of guitarist/vocalist Scott Kannberg (a.k.a. Spiral Stairs) and 40-something drummer/producer Gary Young with bassist Mark Ibold and multi-instrumentalist Bob Nastanovich. Before either could get down to business, however, the original trio convened for their debut full-length, kissing off the old Pavement by offering the first complete taste of what they had to offer. The result is perhaps the greatest of lo-fi masterpieces, and an enduring staple of indie rock.

Slanted and Enchanted sounds like crap. Even in its remastered form, it hisses and buries the mix to the point that you wonder if the band accidentally set up in the same room as the soundboard without realizing the mics were next door. Not helping matters is the fact that Kannberg played bass lines by running a down-tuned guitar through a bass amp, or that Young was so routinely plastered during the few weeks of recording that Nastanovich had to keep time for him. Yet the grimy sonic wash somehow benefits from its grubby recording, giving the whole thing an air of authenticity most bands would kill for these days.

It is a time-consuming enterprise to act as if one doesn't care. Proper attention must be paid to the right sort of anti-fashion, the practiced glares of defiance, the careful judging of just enough success to make a living without going noticed by a major label or more than a vaguely defined "acceptable" number of fans. Even Jarvis Cocker, who deftly avoided the pissing match that was the Britpop's movement to out-working-class every other band, had too much style and cool to be totally immune to image-making. Pavement may have been the first band that genuinely didn't give a damn, or at least the first to mix that with music so compelling that no sane individual could, once hearing it, could ignore.

From the opening hum of "Summer Babe (Winter Version)," SM and co. establish the warring contradictions of the album, not so much a balance between noise rock and pop as a tug of war that never consistently cedes to any one side. Malkmus' lyricism, though nowhere near the impressionistic purity of, say, Van Morrison's, nevertheless cuts to the heart of everything while circumventing the subject entirely. One might as well count to infinity than name the songs focusing on an unattainable woman, but "Summer Babe" uses lines like "Ice baby,/I saw your girlfriend and she was/Eating her fingers like they're just another meal" to evoke deeply personal visions of that someone you had a crush on but could never approach.

The chief influence on the band, at least in these days, was The Fall, and the impact of Mark E. Smith's absurdist realism, to say nothing of the percussive, careening style of his singing and his ever-shifting lineup's playing, can be felt all over Slanted and Enchanted. The energetic "Conduit for Sale!" might as well credit Smith as a co-writer, what with its repeated yelp of "I'm trying!" over clanging guitar squeals. Yet where the early EPs show the band only occasionally moving beyond Smith's influence, Slanted and Enchanted cements Malkmus as his own writer and Kannberg as his own arranger.

Smith could never really handle sincerity, at least not in the plaintive sense, but Pavement throws a curveball when they reach "Here," a song that would qualify instantly as a power ballad were it not as angular and obscure as any of the songs on the record. But its first pair of lines are so direct that the song grips you instantly: "I was dressed for success/But success it never came." No song on the album better epitomizes the band's ability to condense an entire worldview into a few cogent lines before diverging into esoteric absurdity and surrealism that only deepens the meaning. So many affecting songs rely on targeting a specific feeling and addressing it vaguely enough to be universally appealing while inserting a few phrases focused enough to give the audience an easy feeling of "Hey, this guy's on my wavelength!" Malkmus gives an audience on the barest of threads to go on before moving into areas that only he can understand, and that brave willingness to expose only himself without throwing us all into the mix makes his lyrics more powerful than a number of more direct songs.

In that respect, Pavement's reception by rock critics surprises me. Without much in the way of traditional hooks (the band always pulls back just before they settle into an identifiable groove) or discernible lyrics, the group offers critics few of the traditional ledges to latch onto for an analysis. Yet the rock press fell over themselves to praise the album, shooting it to the top of best-of lists before Slanted and Enchanted even hit record store shelves (well, in the few places that would stock it, anyway). Ray Carney, that lover of Cassavetes and one of the more thought-provoking contrarians in film criticism, bases much of his critical approach to a typically stand-offish view of traditional criticism. He says teachers, critics and those the former instruct look for symbols and metaphors as a way of cheaply unpacking a work of art into something manageable while ignoring the nuance and tones of a film or book. "Metaphors, symbols, images are the most primitive way of making artistic meaning," he said in one interview, looking, as ever, for a fight. As much as I find Carney infuriating in his condescension and arrogance, I think his point, while not a universal truth, does apply in cases: certain bands and directors -- even, I think, great ones -- put out works that directly appeal to a broad audience because an artist lives of his or her work, and the more people who can identify with it, the more copies or tickets one sells.

Rock writers, or at least the best ones, tend to follow Carney's view of ideal criticism. Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, Cameron Crowe, vastly different as they all are, are linked by one universal trait: they wrote according to how the music hit them. Bangs, the greatest of music critics, got at the heart of the matter: he responded to primitivism, writing exegeses on neglected garage rock and trashing any band that dared to treat rock 'n roll as anything more than an outlet for savagery. For him, rock was about feeling, not just any feeling but the primal, unevolved emotions that poke out from behind social conditioning.

Pavement, with its perfect blend of sneering indifference and freely associated personal relevance, strike a chord and steadily grow in cultural stature as Nirvana fades more with each passing year. Kurt Cobain could put misery into chunks of Pixies-esque pop that appealed to the demographic that had not yet figured out its emotions: teenagers. Malkmus, in contrast, didn't humor the young by suggesting that their feelings were true and that society really didn't understand. No, Malkmus captured the doubt of puberty and that nagging feeling of reason in every teen's mind that what you're thinking isn't necessarily how things truly are, that the anxieties and pain are real in the sense that they are felt, but also misleading in that they do not carry an understanding of the world. Ergo, Pavement is sarcastic but also lets that front drop without vanishing, mocking the SoCal lifestyle relentlessly but acknowledging the band returning to the suburbs at night for safety. By admitting this dichotomy, they avoid becoming hypocrites.

Slanted and Enchanted placed second on the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop list comprising the submitted lists of numerous critics, but it has yet to be certified gold. Even today, it exists more as an acid test for underground music fans than a cultural touchstone on the level of Nevermind. Pavement would clean up their sound (barely) on their next album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and brush with commercial success, only to react against it as if placing a hand on a hot stove and instinctively pulling back immediately to avoid serious damage. That album offers serious competition to the title of best Pavement album, though all five LPs are great, but what makes Slanted and Enchanted such an enduring landmark for those in the know is how personal the method of sharing it is. I spent quite a lot of time in high school sneering at those who enjoyed something up to the point that most of the other students caught on, only to abandon it -- bands weren't the only target; even YouTube videos suddenly lost favor in the eyes of the beholder -- but Pavement's music suggests a more emotional reason to limit an audience. Slanted and Enchanted works because nobody has yet made the mistake of assigning any central meaning that tidies up the mess of an album. Even the routine mentions of suburbia that run through every review of the band's early work -- including this one -- are less attempts to summarize the album than the placement of one of the many ideas Malkmus' lyrics swirl around provocatively. Pavement sang about disaffection with SoCal and its celebrity worship, but the music could speak to a suburbanite in any state, as well as someone living in the city. Just shy of two decades later, it has solidified its position as one of the defining works of the 1990s, and one of the few works that can proudly call itself indie. Of course, because it is true indie, it would never call attention to itself so openly.


  1. Really like yr music reviews, Jake. Keep em coming!

  2. This is a great piece, Jake. You do a great job of capturing what Pavement did well, and what made them appeal almost universally to a certain kind of rock fan. I especially like your passage about rock being about feeling. More and more, I've come to believe that the essential difference between music and other artforms is the primacy of emotion and visceral feeling in music. Other artforms balance emotion with other elements, but the best music always seems to be about hitting the listener with a concentrated sensation or feeling in its purest form. It is, paradoxically, one of the reasons I write about music much less these days; my reactions to music often feel so personal and private and internal that putting them into words seems counterintuitive. So I really respect your great effort to capture this album in prose here.

    That said, I've always felt like Slanted and Enchanted, like Pavement in general, is rather disappointing. I think you, like most critics, are overstating the degree to which Malkmus was capturing something unique here. They're "the first band that genuinely didn't give a damn"? I don't hear it: you mention Bangs and garage rock, and Pavement certainly came out of that tradition very solidly. But more concretely, they sound like Sonic Youth. I know that sounds dismissive, but almost every song on this album would've fit OK on Sister or Daydream Nation, and "Trigger Cut" is practically a cover, just like "Conduit for Sale" might as well be a Fall cover. Taken on its own merits, I like the music just fine, but I can never quite get past all the eerie similarities to other bands; this isn't just working through one's influences, it's parroting them back. Later Pavement albums do get past that phase a little more completely, though even then they're not a band I can really get excited about. I much prefer the combination of gritty angst and glistening melodicism in Sonic Youth, or the spiky aggression of the Fall, and Pavement just winds up seeming like a second-best copy. I know that's a minority view - I mean, they're indie legends - and they're certainly important as a touchstone for the countless bands that followed in their wake, but beyond their seminal importance, they don't do a whole lot for me, ironically enough, on that level of visceral feeling.

  3. You know, Ed, I felt that way for a looooong time. I'm not really someone who follows indie anyway so I only checked them out on the recommendations of a few friends and pretty much threw S&E and CR, CR off my iTunes list immediately. But for some reason, I threw this on about a month ago and was just hooked. I don't know what specifically changed in my life or in the way I take in music, but suddenly it just spoke to me. I got all their albums and have been rocking them for weeks now without getting tired.

    To be perfectly honest, I also greatly prefer Sonic Youth, which matches Pavement's impressive '90s run and raises it a superior collection in the '80s and an enduring greatness in the new millennium. I also have more fun wrestling with Mark E. Smith's off-the-wall inverted realism than I do with Malkmus' free association. But something clicked recently, and I tried to get at that bizarre pull the music had on me, and I finally understood what others were saying.

    I've toyed with doing more album reviews because the ones I do are really just the ones I love and the ones that speak to me (I don't know remotely enough about music to write about everything I listen to, even if I have broad tastes; Jesus, I'm stretching it just to talk about film). I kind of want to go through the discographies of my favorite artists, so I'll probably do Sonic Youth, more Bowie, Sinatra, etc. I might even do The Fall, though perhaps by way of a tribute to John Peel. I dunno, I can only really focus on how the music hits me and, as you said, that opens up the possibility of revealing more about myself than I want enshrined on the Internet. Then again, I try to be honest with people since I'm criticizing the personal statements of others, so who knows?

    Thanks for stopping by, as always, and thank you too, Mercer.

  4. Sometimes bands and albums hit us perfectly at a certain time and our reactions to them change completely. So maybe my S&E reversal will come someday (though not today: this post prompted me to put it on at work and I only made it halfway through before getting bored and switching to Japanese psych-rock genius L). I used to be rather dismissive of the Fall until I discovered the albums they made around the time of Hex Enduction Hour, which are all brilliant and challenging and utterly unique. But even more strikingly, I used to think the Smiths were pretty boring, until one day I put on The Queen Is Dead and it just clicked: suddenly this music struck me as emotionally rich and moving and funny and clever, and I've loved all their albums ever since. It's weird the way these things happen.

    Anyway, I hope you follow through with some more reviews of artists you love; I'd especially enjoy an examination of Sonic Youth, who are one of the great rock bands of the last few decades, and one of the most important and influential bands as well. I have a great deal of respect for them, even beyond their own music, for all the support they've given to avant-garde artists. I used to always see Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon at experimental shows in NYC, and even though their own dabblings in more experimental forms usually disappoint me, they've been a great resource for promoting and encouraging music that generally doesn't have much of a shot at any kind of broader appeal.

  5. Good integration of Carney into your argument here. It's too bad that his most famous pieces are his least diplomatic. For a more reasonable articulation of his views your better off reading the mailbag or one of his published books than those provocative interviews.

    For me, this is Carney vis a vis symbols in a nutshell, in an introduction to the sixth chapter of William James' Pluralistic Universe: "Artists need to have ideas, and need to use various forms of conceptual and temporal shorthand in their work (metaphors, symbols, typologies, summaries and abbreviations of all sorts) -- but they must also understand how ideas and abstractions and summaries can and do betray or falsify the deepest and most important aspects of lived experience. Life is non-conceptual. Life is not ideas. Life is experiences. How can an artist make a work of art responsive to the non-conceptual, non-abstracted, temporally flowing side of reality? How can an artist avoid giving his or her viewer or listener 'ideas' in place of 'experiences?' Read and think about these issues. "

  6. I've read some "calmed-down" Carney and found him much more appealing. Even in that interview where my quote comes from, he talks about working with his students and having them question why they react derisively to some of the films he picks. That sounds incredibly interesting and I'd like to sit in on a class with him. But when he gets belligerent he is just the worst.

  7. https://soundcloud.com/caseyweissbuch/slanted-sign-second-single-off-of-debut-album-forever

    For fans of, i dunno....the 90s and definitely Pavement hahaha