Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – Album Review
One of the last moments I ever had with the cassette tape format happened just prior to me buying this in my first purchase of CD’s, 4 in total on my first buy totaling roughly $85-90 at the time. Little did I know heading from the land of already purchasing the most expensive tapes put in stores as “imports” that I would be in for a far worse set of personal economics once the CD was available, back when the MP3 was simply three random keys on your QWERTY keyboard.
The path to our favorite music is not usually anything that would represent a straight A – B line. On a night late in December 1993 our local radio station announced that a brand new and never before heard Nirvana track would be played late that night. For those of you who have become curious about just how long this beard has been around, I’ll solve the mystery for you right here – I was thirteen years old. Perhaps not normal at that age (or now for that matter) and certainly musically obsessed since the age of eight years old – I was determined to stay awake as long as I had to in order to not only HEAR the new Nirvana song – but to RECORD it and PIRATE the radio recording for my own personal collection. After all – who knew when I would hear that song again?
As it turned out – the song would later be known as both “Verse Chorus Verse” and “Sappy” at different times – found on the last tape that I had ever purchased, a compilation known as No Alternative. It was the ultimate in fan-boy belief – purchase this new alternative mix tape with a HIDDEN TRACK – that’s right – nowhere on the tape or jacket did it mention the world’s biggest band at the time had placed their music on it. I could have simply flipped the tape onto the B-side and rewound it to find out if the track was truly there like the radioman said it would be…but I was the same then as I am now; with all those other bands in front of this potential last-track-guaranteed-to-like goldmine, well…I suppose I just HAD to listen.
Perhaps one of the best purchases I’ve ever made – that tape lead me to all kinds of relationships with music that would become staples of your household only years later. It was the middle of the grunge era; David Geffen and his cronies had already gone around and snatched up what they could as the bones and muscles of the prehistoric thinking of the music industry stretched and flexed to include any sound remotely close to a “Nirvana.” I discovered artists I had never known for the first time like Matthew Sweet, Urge Overkill, and Uncle Tupelo were creating sounds I loved but had no idea they even existed for my ears to hear them until this tape. Other favorite bands of mine at the time like Soul Asylum, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden and The Breeders had all put “B-sides” of their work into the mix. Oddly enough, it was also my gateway into Sarah McLachlan and The Beastie Boys.
It was literally impossible to miss the band I’m ACTUALLY reviewing here – PAVEMENT – with their submission to the mix tape being called “The Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence.” It’s much more than a mere track title; with the amount of space it took to write on the back of a tape case jacket it was the equivalent of a banner ad in today’s world. It stood out in a million ways to me.
The first being that I had yet to hear a song like this – ever! It sounded…so…damn…lazy. Even at that early age I could still recognize the difference in the laziness I was listening to; this music was intentionally played to throw you right the fuck off. The subject matter was of a specific band I barely knew at that time, one that eventually become my favorite band of all-time, still to this day – R.E.M. Not an inch of this track made sense to my brain at the time and I LOVED it.
That track isn’t on this album either. I should have mentioned that these classic album reviews would be just as much an oral history of my autobiographical musical life as well…
So! Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain!
One of the first four CD’s I purchased, (All to be revealed here soon through reviews) I had actually unwrapped this one third after listening to two of the purchases that didn’t gel with me right away. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain does not start with a bang, or a whisper – it starts with the simple beat of a drum and an impromptu guitar solo so rich in tone and wandering that the idea it was going to become a cohesive song was quite far off in those first 20 seconds. Then it hit, big time.
“Silence Kit” aka “Silence Kid” as it was labeled differently from the back of the CD case from the disc itself. The internet consensus has become “Silence Kit” – we’ll go with that. Talk about an introduction to a band! This song explodes in all the right ways and my young ears quickly heard sounds that would immediately come to call home inside my head. From the moment that intro ends – the chord progressions and tone in this first track were revealed and my mind was blown open.
Even at that early age I was suspicious of the industry and their abilities to sell you an album through clever marketing, getting the musically-eager to be at the front of the trends and buying albums containing a half-song’s worth of actually redeemable content – so believe me when I tell you that no matter how good a track like that was, I was still waiting for the bottom to drop out of this album. It was so rare to find an album back then where you could truly argue the ALBUM as being solid, especially in the grunge heyday where any off-played chords could be potentially recorded.
As it played on, “Silence Kit” breaks down into an incredible jazz-like ending that again offered me something to listen to that I had never heard yet. “Elevate Me Later” the track immediately following was such an EASY track to listen to! The combination of these tracks left me believing quickly that I might have pushed play on this new CD, but they had just gone and truly pushed play in my headspace. With these two tracks, my music palette had instantly changed.
Grunge was pre-internet. Sometimes I even forget that myself now, but at that age there was no other way to research your favorite bands other than to dig DEEP into the liner notes, read Spin and Rolling Stone, watch MuchMusic, (Way back when videos were actually played) spend hours of your life in record stores and of course hit the library for anything in the archives you might have missed. I did all of these things at that age…a time where I would simply sit and listen to music and do NOTHING else.
As it turned out, what I had read then was that Pavement was giving birth to a new kind of music called “Slacker Rock.” This entire Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain album represented that new category to the maximum. It had then and still has amazing songwriting, an incredible uniqueness and freedom in creativity and production that let you know they had support to record but weren’t trying for the crystal clarity of the mainstream. But even with all the genius laden over track after track – there was still something “off” wasn’t there? WHAT IS THIS?
Once “Stop Breathing” began to play, the third track of the album I knew what it was. It was him! Who IS this guy singing anyway? Is he trying? Is he NOT trying? What is he DOING? WHAT IS THIS?
Who he is, is Stephen Malkmus – the true genius behind the music of Pavement and a true artist in every sense of the word. After this album, slowly over time I would digest, listen to and devour every album by Pavement – always led by Malkmus and ALWAYS doing what they wanted to do.
Slacker wasn’t correct for the actual story behind the music. Yes – it SOUNDS lazy – but if you truly have a musical ear you’ll easily hear this is music that takes a tremendous amount of timing and ability to play and pull off. One of those genuine situations where you’ll probably hear tons of bands cover Pavement songs in these decades to follow but not ONE of them will ever be able to catch the true style of which this band was playing WITH.
As a songwriter Malkmus was continually blowing my mind open with what he would write about. Hearing their indie-hit “Cut Your Hair” for the first time was such a revelation in the combination of great pop with this new sound of “Slacker Rock” masking it with great subtlety. There’s no doubt when you listen to that track that it would have caught on with a ton of people and it did. It put Pavement on-screen with a video and really made some waves throughout college radio-stations everywhere.
You name a track – “Newark Wilder,” Unfair,” “Gold Soundz” – it doesn’t matter what you choose, the authenticity of this band shows through every time. I’ve looked and I’ve listened but the fact of that matter is simply this: There was no Pavement BEFORE Pavement. Even today, while you can certainly point to a modern act like Modest Mouse and hear that influence – if not in sound then in musical expressionism and freedom of creativity. This band blew the doors open for bands today to go after what they REALLY wanted to put down on a record and settle for nothing less. If it didn’t sound like a “hit” or even normal – those sounds were embraced rather than discarded in search of the next number one single.
Take the instrumental jazz-jam of “5-4=Unity” on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. You can consider this one of my first experiences with that as well; the idea that you could do both on a single album. You could have BOTH! Songs with words and songs without – and on the same album! This song on the album really provides a short break before Pavement continue with the rest of the set of songs on the album into its finality. It shows the tremendous skill in their timing and ideas, as well as the playing in the rest of the band which could often get ignored by being too close to the Malkmus spotlight – something he himself seemed to never want, care for or even acknowledge. Steve West came in to drum for this particular album and the impact on their music left a long lasting effect, one that saw the incorporation of jazz-influenced beats spring up on every Pavement album since. Even in anything you can find in the recent years of Stephen Malkmus’ solo work – that style of drumming is a constant quality that drives the sound of the music he likes to make most.
“Range Life.” That song deserves a review in itself. Not until that first song – “Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence” had I heard a band really shout-out or reference ANOTHER band in a song. Weezer would do this later on in a much different way, much more like a hipster reference rather than a genuine need to say something. On “Range Life” – Malkmus’ mind wanders lyrically to a couple of bands and he pulls no punches – causing one of the great rifts known in the alternative music scene.
The song has a verse that did not gel with one guy known as Billy Corgan. It went like this: “Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins, nature kids but they don’t have a function. I don’t understand what they mean and I could really give a fuck.” In the prime release of Lollapalooza concerts and amazing alternative line-ups – this very track saw Pavement removed from the line-up of exciting bands on the bill or the Smashing Pumpkins were taking themselves off the bill. They were one of the headlining acts; pressure was applied and Pavement was booted from the Lollapalooza spotlight.
Between “Range Life” and “Heaven Is A Truck” – you also get to hear the elements of desolate country music that has also shaped much of the tone and feel of their career. The way Stephen Malkmus writes you’d almost swear he has never written anything down so much as he might be simply thinking aloud. No matter what track you listen to – that freehand writing, or free-spirited nature – whatever you want to call it, is ALWAYS there. He doesn’t expect you to understand the correlations, I’m not sure if he even does – his mind wanders all over the map creating lyrics for people just like myself – the musically A.D.D.
As the album begins the final descent into the final tracks – the second to last, “Hit The Plane Down” serves to crank up the volume one last time before the final track, “Fillmore Jive” sounds engineered to send you hazily off to sleep as the final notes play out. That sleep won’t come easy though; this final cut really has it all, from the lazy “slacker” style playing you’ve come to love throughout listening to the album, to the crashing waves of tonal guitars ripping into each other in a giant musical crescendo.
The bottom of this album never dropped out. I was never “sold” this album – I sold it to myself. Listening to a tribute track on a compilation tape way back when, and then in buying this CD of my own accord. I didn’t need marketing to hold my hand at the counter then and I still don’t. This album was every bit the proof that I needed that amazing music was being made underneath the surface – something that still remains true to this day.
I might now be, or represent your ever-loving independent music fan – but this is truly the album that turned on that switch in my brain. Give it a listen and see if it doesn’t open a few musical doors for you too.
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