Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: LA

in 1994, Pavement were at the top of their game, arguably more so than any rock band has been since. They were the ultimate darlings of the rock criterati, their music a vast canvas perfectly suited for any jaded writer's reinvigorated musings. They were the most popular kids in cool school, their name alone a virtual shibboleth by which hip young tastemakers could find one another in a room full of Pearl Jam fans. And just about everything they touched was, beneath the calculatedly sloppy exterior, detail-perfect.

Just look at something as simple as the "Cut Your Hair" 7". You've got a killer single. You've got one great b-side, the semi-uncredited R.E.M. cover "Camera". And you even get a little bonus b-side, the pointless but pleasant "Stare". Now read the titles together:

Cut Your Hair / Camera / Stare

Even the track lists were poetry.

But at the same time, their appeal was limited by their insularity: either you got it or you didn't. To their core fans, it was near-impossible to understand how their shifts toward a sound more palatable to the masses (tighter song structures, less amp static and tape hiss) failed to propel them straight into the full-blown embrace of the mainstream. To those on the outside, the appeal of Pavement's nerdy smartass in-joke-rock, with their clean guitar tones ringing out like sore thumbs at the height of the grunge era's fuzzbox revolution, was simply incomprehensible.

If you recall, Pavement were once draped with a sash that read "The Next R.E.M.", a quaint and naive notion in hindsight, and one that created unfairly inflated commercial expectations.

R.E.M.'s unlikely appeal, after all, lay in the fact that beneath the enigma that was Michael Stipe's public persona there was an undeniable earnestness. Pavement, on the other hand, were hiding a collection of highly amusing but ultimately inconsequential inside-jokes behind their initial curtain of mystery. They were a melting pot of all the "right" influences (Sonic Youth, the Fall, the Swell Maps, and let's face it, R.E.M.) topped off by Steve Malkmus's winking drawl, his lyrics a jumble of effortlessly intriguing wordplay, his voice the sonic equivalent of slouched shoulders, untrimmed bangs and a big, toothy shit-eating grin. All of which added up to a band that couldn't have been more perfectly designed for college radio, musical beach-reading for budding young pseudo-intellectuals. If they were The Next anybody, it was Camper Van Beethoven.

Pavement took some big risks with Crooked Rain, and they paid off handsomely. The opening track, "Silence Kit," proudly announces the arrival of the new Pavement, free of tape hiss and imbued with the courage to soar melodically. Malkmus's voice drifts casually in and out of falsetto as he spins a lyrically translucent yarn about unburdening oneself from the expectations of others.

Of course the words aren't crystal clear (yet), but stolen fragments reveal a frustrated rock classicist pining for the heyday of a genre in decline: "Go back to those gold sounds", he suggests, "you can never quarantine the past". "It's a brand new era / But it came too late". At the end of side one he bids "...goodnight / To the last psychedelic band"; by the record's close he ups the ante to "Goodnight to the rock and roll era".

And now, ten years on, many of us find ourselves nostalgic for Pavement's own glory days. Enter the reissues. Two years ago, Matador celebrated the ten-year of Pavement's myth-making debut with a two-CD set containing the original Slanted and Enchanted along with all attendant b-sides, Peel Sessions, the follow-up EP and a widely-bootlegged early live performance most fans already knew by heart ("This goes out to the Crucial Three..."). Very complete, very necessary, but hardly revealing; all of the material had been previously available to anyone who cared. Crooked Rain’s attendant set has less to archive, but promises far more valuable treasures to the die-hard fan: studio outtakes.

Quickly then, disc one: you get the original album which, if you haven't listened to it recently, do yourself a favour; it holds up marvelously. In the ten years since its release, I honestly don't think there's been a better rock album. There, I've said it. Seriously, best of the decade. (Note: I did say rock album) We follow with the predictably hit-or-miss jumble of b-sides, which are interesting in that these hew closer to one's mental picture of the "typical Pavement song" than most of the album tracks. Look at the delightful "Raft", for instance: simple major key progression that starts and ends on the root chord; multiple stumbling guitar solos; a handful of "ba-da-da-da"s where lyrics were deemed extraneous: Pavement in a nutshell, right? Well, sometimes, but only on the seventh day, really. Then you get the two songs from the bonus 7" that came with the original vinyl release, which were a lot funnier in my more, um, recreational years, and a couple of compilation tracks.

Now for the good stuff: disc two. The first eight tracks are from the aborted recording attempt at their original studio in California, and are the last recordings of Pavement with the legendary Gary Young behind the drum kit. The few unheard songs are unremarkable, but the early versions of Crooked Rain songs reveal an interesting note about Malkmus's writing process: while the lyrics often bear only a passing resemblance to those of the final versions, the guitar lines are already fully formed, even the twisting solo in the coda of "Stop Breathing". All of the lead lines in "Range Life" survived similarly intact. This suggests a minimal degree of writing in the studio, a practice I would have assumed from a band with as spontaneous a vibe as Pavement's. The next thirteen tracks are outtakes from the actual recording sessions that produced the final album, and some of these are little more than sketches. For every one pleasant fragment like the version of Wowee Zowee’s "Pueblo" (listed as "Pueblo (Beach Boys)") stripped down to just a single guitar and a few layers of wordless vocal harmonies, there are two pointless throwaways, such as "Fucking Righteous", which answers the question "Did 'Teenage Piss Party' need a successor?" in the resounding negative, or "JMC Retro" which, with its heavily-reverbed vocals and all-fuzz guitar, does indeed sound like the Psychocandy mock-up suggested by the title, but offers little beyond that knowing joke.

The biggest surprise of these tracks is the number of Wowee songs that were already written. There's four of them here, and they were already playing "Fight This Generation" in concerts at the time; side three of their next album was almost finished. And how did "Hit the Plane Down" get picked as Crooked Rain’s token Spiral Stairs song when "Kennel District" was available? I mean, I like "Plane Down" just fine, but come on.

We close with the band's third and final Peel Session. It's easily the weakest of the three, but does end with "The Sutcliffe Catering Song", which features Malkmus's first attempt at stoned rapping (a gimmick that would later become unbearable but here is a breezy delight), and later resurfaced in a vastly inferior version as a Wowee b-side under the title "Easily Fooled". Presumably, that version will appear on next year's reissue. While we wait, I'll be listening again to this fun but ultimately non-essential set, searching for a few more clues to unlock that subtle genius that was, for just a few precious years, the very essence of indie rock.

Reviewed by: Bjorn Randolph
Reviewed on: 2004-11-19
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