Welcome to #ThrowbackThursday, a weekly column where I take a close look at a classic album. Maybe it's an album you haven't heard of, maybe it's an album you're aware of but haven't ever bothered giving a proper spin, maybe it's an album you love and wouldn't mind being reminded of. Regardless, the goal is to spark conversation about the albums that made today's music what it is.
It's hard to believe, but there was a time in the not-too distant past when the term "indie rock" didn't exit. Sure, independent music was recognized as its own thing, but "indie rock" hadn't yet condensed itself into anything nearly as distinctive as how think of it today--however much that is. If you look at independent rock bands from the late 80s--Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., hell, even R.E.M. or Nirvana--you might see them termed college rock. You might also see bands like these termed alternative rock.
At a certain point, what we know as "indie rock" split from "alt-rock"--which we now associate with, say, Tool or Creed or Pearl Jam or The Smashing Pumpkins (more on those dudes later).
Understanding this schism doesn't actually much involve the terrifyingly subjective idea of genre--genres are, at their worst, limiting and restrictive, and at best, a convenient way to think about similar bands or song ("indie" ten times so more than any other genre.) Instead, it centers on something that, if not objective, is way way way less subjective: commercial ambition.
In the early 90s, certain bands eschewed the idea of commercial success in favor of their dignity and credibility. A lot of these bands were terrible. Pavement wasn't. And Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is their best album.
The album opener, "Silence Kit," starts with a sloppiness that will soon become familiar, if not straight-up endearing. Buzzsaw guitars struggle against, then join with, Steve West's drums for the first minute or so of the song, before Stephen Malkmus' offkilter vocals kick in and the song begins proper. West's freewheeling drum fills carry the song to the a trick ending: around the two-minute mark, the song seems to end on a sour chord, then begins again in 6/8 time with borderline Zappa-esque guitar fills divebombing all over the place as Malkmus laments: "Ecstasy feels so warm inside/ Till five hours later/ I am chewin' screwin'myself with my hand."
(It's probably best to get this out of the way as early as possible: very few--if any--of the lyrics on the album really make sense in anything more than obscure, impressionistic two-line chunks. There are so many great quips, and you can apply your own meaning to most of the songs, but if you're looking for linear, straight-forward lyrics, you're probably not going to dig this record very much.)
"Elevate Me Later" continues the looseness of the first track: West's constant snare hits, Mark Ibold's pulsing bassline, and a guitar lead always seemingly on the threshold of feedback guide the song. "As you sleep with electric guitars/ Range Rovin' with the cinema stars/ And I wouldn't want to shake their hands/ 'Cause they're in such a high-protein land," Malkmus sings dismissively. The song features another false ending: the cacophony of cymbal crashes with which any other band might end a song instead give way to another repetition of the guitar lead.
"Stop Breathin" is a change of pace: "Got struck by the first volley/ Of the war in the courts/ Never held my serve/ Send'em a wire, give'em my best/ This ammunition never rests/ No one serves coffee, no one wakes up" Malkmus sings over a bright, modulating guitar arpeggio that seems hellbent on verging into atonality. The off notes and Malkmus' trademark disaffect prevent the song from evolving into a dirge--Miles Davis once said that one wrong note is a mistake, but two wrong notes is jazz. Pavement aren't remotely jazzy (at least at this point of the album!) but they never feel totally right, either. The song evolves into an extended coda: a gorgeous, pleading, haunting arpeggio figure harmonized across two guitars. The guitars grow in urgency until they're met by Ibold's bassline, and then West's drums, as the whole band plays in unison to close the song out.
The next track, "Cut Your Hair," is the closest the band ever came to commercial success--peaking at #10 on the U.S. Modern Rock charts--or for that matter, accesibility. Ironically, the song is the band's most straight-ahead critique of the early 90s music industry: "Advertising looks and chops a must/ No big hair!/ Songs mean a lot/ When songs are bought/ And so are you/ Face right down to the practice room/ Attention and fame's a career" Malkmus sings in a damning landscape of post-hair metal alternative music. Scott Kannberg's backing vocals are a highlight; the mid-song breakdown leading to a demolishingly tremolo-picked guitar solo is another.
"Newark Wilder" is lush, jazzy (hey-o!), led equally by vibrato-laden guitars and West's syncopated, quasi-John Densmore drumming. The song could probably work as the theme to a mumblecore James Bond reboot. "Unfair" is the most energetic song of the album: noisy guitars provide the backing for a surreal paean to the state of California. I use "paean" super ironically: "Down in Santa Rosa over the bay/ Across the grapevine to L.A./ We've got desert, we've got trees/ We've got the hills of Beverly/ Let's burn the hills of Beverly/ Walk with your credit card in the air/ Swing your nachos just like you just don't care" Malkmus begins, and amid walls of guitar feedback he concludes: "I'm not your neighbor, you Bakersfield trash" and then squeals a whole bunch.
"Gold Soundz" is the closest the band comes to being straight-up beautiful. Swirling rhythm guitars give way to a gorgeous instrumental bridge that almost makes Malkmus' hollowness: "So drunk in the August sun/ And you're the kind of girl I like/ Because you're empty, and I'm empty," he sings cheerfully.
It's not even worth it to bother trying to describe how good this song is. Just listen to it now. It's fucking dope.
"5-4=Unity" is an out-of-left-field instrumetal led by piano and upright bass, occasionally diverting to Abbey Road style guitar figures. The song seems to Pavement equally saying "we're capable of doing anything" as much as "we're willing to do anything." I wouldn't call the song required listening, as it doesn't sound like anything else in the band's catalog, but it's essential to the album's structure: the perfect reminder that the band doesn't want you to think it's as precious as "Gold Soundz."
"Range Life" is probably best known as the song that pissed off Billy Corgan enough to request that Pavement be left off of the 1994 Lollapalooza tour: "Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins/ Nature kids, I, they don't have no function/ I don't understand what they mean and I could really give a fuck," Malkmus sings (before launching another direct barb at Stone Temple Pilots.) Otherwise, the song is a country-tinged ballad that hints at their later albums.
"Heaven is a Truck" is the album's second song to feature piano: a tinkling piano melody leads through another country-tinged song. The chorus features Malkmus and Kannberg singing that "she is the queen of a cancelled" Pasadena and California simultaneously. The song falls apart, giving way to auto-wahed guitars.
If "Gold Soundz" was the closest the band came to being straight-up beautiful, "Hit The Plane Down" is the closest the band comes to being straight-up "ugly." The one song penned and sung by Kannberg, the song is the most reminiscent of the band's earlier, more dissonant work: a repetetive bass riff, atonal guitars, and distorted vocals define the song.
"Fillmore Jive" is a perfect album closer: the first verse way to a soaringly exhausted refrain. "I need to sleep, why don't you let me? I need to sleep, why don't you?." The song is another takedown of the music industry: "See those rockers with their long curly locks/ Goodnight to the rock n' roll era/ 'Cause they don't need you anymore." The song erupts into not one, not two, but three blistening guitar solos, but never gives up its sense of melancholy. The third solo lasts over a minute and leads to the final lyrics of the album: "They pull out their plugs/ And they snort up their drugs/ Their throats are filled with---," Malkmus sings, never concluding.
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is an album that at no point feels polished. Even at its most cleanly-produced moments, it feels like ordered shambles. You never feel like you know what to expect next; the guitars never feel perfectly in tune, the drums never feel settled; Malkmus' vocal inflection never really feels like he believes what he's saying, or that he's saying anything at all. And after hearing this album, I guarantee you you wouldn't want it any other way. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a shining, glorious mess.
If you've listened to any indie rock at all within the past twenty years, you've heard the influence of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. The album's DIY ethos--and in many cases sound--has defined independent rock as a whole since its release, differentiating what we know as "indie rock" from other (and in some cases, great) bands that got taken in by labels and cleaned up.
This isn't to dismiss commercial rock, or to discount the contributions of other independent bands, but Pavement is the most compelling band of this period in rock because of how close they came to "making it".
Pavement nearly touched mainstream radio success with "Cut Your Hair," and hell, maybe they'd be remembered better among the general populace if they'd made it onto the 1994 Lollapalooza tour. But for better or worse, they made the sort of music that they wanted; music that happened to be accessible enough to be heard but not necessarily appreciated by the mainstream, but that the independent community latched onto and exalted as legendary.
Over the past two decades, a ton of indie rock has lost much of the iconic lo-fidelity prediction and detachment that defined the sound's nascent years. But many bands today sound a ton like Pavement: Dr. Dog, Parquet Courts, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! are the examples I probably enjoy the most.
If you like indie rock, you owe it to yourself to listen to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.