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The Infinite Radness of Pavement’s Breakthrough Album

On the 25th anniversary of their landmark sophomore album, ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain,’ members of the quintessential ’90s indie-rock band reflect on their big moment, their defining music video, and that silly little beef with an alt-rock icon. Was it a crisis or a boring change?

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Let me tell you about the most vexing line in the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. “Gold Soundz,” this song is called, that cheeky “Z” on the end there already desperate to undercut the beauty, smirking at the song’s own poignance, lampooning its unguarded embrace of a nostalgia so pure that the first line is literally “Go back to those gold soundz.” That is not the vexing part.

“Gold Soundz” is the seventh song—and thus the opening song on Side 2 of the cassette, crucially—on Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, which came out on February 14, 1994, though at the time I personally was nowhere near cool enough to have even heard of Pavement yet, and certainly didn’t know enough to be vexed by that ignorance. But for a terminally uncool Midwestern teenager obsessed with “alternative rock”—full of moody and righteously guitar-wielding bands with rad names like Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots—Crooked Rain was a revelation when I finally stumbled across it, which is to say when I convinced my buddy Scott to shoplift the cassette from Super Kmart for me. (Shout-out to Scott; apologies to Super Kmart, and to the band.)

Pavement first came together in Stockton, California, but recorded Crooked Rain, their second album, in New York City, in a half-studio, half-some-dude’s-apartment above a music store. I prevailed on Scott to commit petty larceny because I saw the video for the album’s lead single, “Cut Your Hair,” on MTV. But “Gold Soundz” is the one that really got me, with its ramshackle tenderness, its gorgeously understated guitar break, its Peak Mixtape cryptic romanticism best exemplified by the not-at-all-vexing lines, sung by sardonic-yet-profound frontman Stephen Malkmus, that open the song’s last verse:

So drunk
In the August sun
And you’re the kind of girl I like
Because you’re empty
And I’m empty
And you can never quarantine the past

The video for “Gold Soundz” features the five members of Pavement wearing Santa suits and running around some sort of suburban-mall situation. I never saw it on MTV.

I loved the song anyway, though, and love it still. But here is the line that vexes me now: “Is it a crisis or a boring change?” Which is a dangerous question to ask a teenager, and an even more dangerous question to ask someone a quarter-century removed from being a teenager. Why does this matter so much to me? Does it matter to anyone else? Does it matter at all?

Swap out does for did and things get even more vexing. If it hit a certain ’90s kid a certain way, a song like “Gold Soundz” could crack open the fault line between “alternative rock” and “indie rock,” an equally meaningless term to describe what at the time was an equally momentous thing, an ethos, a religion. Same guitars; same operatic moodiness. But far rawer, and weirder, and less commercialized than the likes of Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots. Far cooler, too. The distinction seemed like a big deal at the time. As did everything else.

My alt-rock-loving high school friends hated Pavement; enough people came to love “Gold Soundz” that it topped Pitchfork’s Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s list. Thus does a once-controversial personal opinion evolve into a somewhat basic professional opinion. I mean professional in the sense that I’ve got enough juice now to call up Malkmus and other members of Pavement in 2019 and ask them questions about this song, this album, this era, this ethos, this religion. The idea being that they’ll provide answers and validation and invaluable context, that they will decode and demystify this music in a way that only enhances its mystique.

“To be completely honest, ‘Gold Soundz’ is always a pain in the ass for me because the tambourine part is so aggressive that it made my arms sore,” says Bob Nastanovich, Pavement junk-drawer percussionist and invaluable onstage provocateur and occasional shouter-of-the-chorus. “I thought it was kind of, like, boring. I thought it was just one of those songs, and there’s a lot of them in Pavement history, that are better on record than live.”

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain turns 25 on Thursday. This time it’s definitely a crisis.

Congratulations to you if the “Cut Your Hair” video was not your first exposure to Pavement. Maybe you fell in love in real time with the band’s first album, 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted, a deep vein of wry, feral, mellow gold filled with sublime melancholia, noisy punk-adjacent tirades, and songs that managed to be both at the same time. Maybe you fell for them even earlier, when they were even noisier. The band back then consisted mostly of Malkmus, guitarist and occasional singer Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg, and original drummer Gary Young, a volatile onstage presence who was a decade or two older than the rest of the guys and quit shortly after the abortive first recording sessions for Crooked Rain at his home studio in California, in part because he was worn down by touring and wanted health insurance. Maybe you could even reel off this early iteration of the band’s many immediate influences: the Fall and Swell Maps abroad, the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr. and maybe the Meat Puppets domestic.

For everyone else, though, this was the big bang, without warning or precedent.

Bassist Mark Ibold is the cheerful fella who sneezes a kitten. Kannberg is the gorilla. (“It was all their ideas,” Kannberg tells me now of video directors Dan Koretzky and Rian Murphy, veterans of the band’s early label, Drag City. “Little odd that they thought I was a gorilla.”) Nastanovich is the cut-up who trips over the table and guzzles the barbicide. Malkmus is the handsome guy who gets a martini, a scepter, a crown, and a single-tear close-up, a subtle hint as to this band’s personal dynamic. New drummer Steve West is the dude in the auto-mechanic jumpsuit who turns into a giant lizard. No lip-syncing, and no visible effort other than the sort that carefully disguises itself as a contemptuous total lack of effort. Lots of bands tried that approach in the ’90s. Only one perfected it.

“We weren’t willing to make a mockery of this process, and they were, so I think that’s part of the reason why they were chosen,” Nastanovich says now of the Drag City guys. “And so that’s exactly what they did. And I remember, pretty vividly, one of our best friends, our merch guy, Maurice, watching the video, and saying that it was by far the stupidest and worst video he’d ever seen in his life. And we immediately thought, like, ‘Oh, god, people are gonna see this thing, it’s so bad.’”

Indeed, lots of people saw the “Cut Your Hair” video and thought it was wonderful, or at least beguiling in its disregard, charming in its petulance. The song itself pulled up just to the line of earnestly anthemic, with its scruffy distortion-pedal magnificence and goofy falsetto ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh chorus that drove my high school buddies nuts and Malkmus’s reliably elliptical lyrics spoofing alt-rock commercialism: “Face right down to the practice room / Attention and fame’s a career, career, career, career, career, career.” Or maybe it was “Korea, Korea, Korea.”

Crooked Rain slouched to conquer, insidiously tuneful but meticulously aloof, with a basement-punk pedigree but penthouse aspirations, like the New York Dolls covering “Hotel California.” Pavement flirted with alt-country on the wistful and vicious “Range Life,” and at least attempted crossed-guitar-neck anthemia on the massive, shambolic album closer “Fillmore Jive.” There is a punch-drunk tribute to West Coast cool jazz deity Dave Brubeck called “5-4 = Unity” and a caterwauling freakout called “Unfair” that became an unruly live highlight and a Nastanovich specialty. Kannberg howls his way through a joyfully near-atonal romp called “Hit the Plane Down,” a song that he has always struggled to explain, or maybe been very delighted to not explain.

“I always loved the mystery part of Pavement,” Kannberg says now. “And the Crooked Rain record was where a lot of the mystery got stripped apart, taken away by, I guess, popularity.”

Verily, Crooked Rain was a relative commercial success, cracking the Billboard 200 back when this was legitimately difficult and landing the band on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show With Jay Leno back when this was quite an honor. This compelled the band, of course, to treat the gig with even more contempt than usual.

Like all of Pavement’s albums, Crooked Rain came out on Matador Records, one of the most prominent and beloved American indie labels, with by then just enough of a connection to the major-label alt-rock machine (via a major-label distribution deal that Pavement chose, strategically, to deemphasize) to give the band a significant PR push that could double, crucially, as a shrug. “We kind of snuck through in the five minutes that we were allowed to be on MTV and stuff,” Kannberg says. “We always felt like, ‘They’re kind of letting us in here because … I don’t know why.’ The door got slammed shut pretty hard pretty soon after. By that time, we’d already had fans, and we could still put out records. We were never—we never really said, ‘No, we don’t want to be famous’ or that whole thing. That was more of a myth.”

Most Pavement-based myths revolved around Malkmus, whose shrugs were more imposing than any other frontman’s struts, and who seeded every album, and Crooked Rain in particular, with tantalizing scraps of garbled wisdom designed to resist any attempt at clarification. “Say goodnight to the rock ’n’ roll era.” “Ecstasy feels so warm inside till five hours later.” “Let’s burn the Hills of Beverly!” “It’s a brand-new era / It feels great / It’s a brand-new era / But it came too late.” His most famous lines, up to that point, came on an early song called “Frontwards”: “I’ve got style / Miles and miles / So much style that it’s wasted.” Crooked Rain is when he stopped wasting it.

In old interviews, Malkmus could be gregarious and bitchy in equal measure. Talking to Spin in 1994, he took the rare step of helpfully clarifying his intent on “Cut Your Hair”: “I don’t want it to be taken as a scathing cutdown of careerism in music, because, if anything, people should know that, like, Fugazi and Jesus Lizard and Bad Religion probably make more money than Saigon Kick or Britny Fox, and they’re not on major labels. The whole commodity side of music is something that people want to know about but don’t want to know about.” But he also explained the Crooked Rain promotional situation thus: “Plus Atlantic’s ad copy is disgusting. Who wants to be in an ad with the Lemonheads?”

By the time Crooked Rain was canonized and reissued in 2004 as an outlandishly excellent two-CD set, Malkmus was more apt to strike a less brash tone. “Like a good kid with bad table manners, we just didn’t know any better,” he writes in the extensive liner notes, recalling the blissfully inexperienced recording process. His sense of the album’s reception is even more striking:

When it was all said and done, I thought we had a pretty good chance to make a dent in the marketplace. Matador was signed up with Atlantic Records. We were pushable. It was catchy and the time was right. But it turned out that the time was just “all right” and the tunes were not that catchy. We didn’t quite set the world half-alight like I thought we would. There was some hubris going on and sour indie rash as well as genuine dislike for the big time. Oh, and some true fear as well.

So when Malkmus listens to Crooked Rain now, does he hear the mistakes and the fear, or just, y’know, the youth? “Some of the singing, there’s yelp-y singing at times,” he tells me. “But you just have two takes, and you just, like, sang through it twice and then compiled it. There is nobody, no super-ego producer overlooking what’s ‘allowed.’ That’s a good thing for kids. In a way, to do things like that now, it could be hard, of course, just with the internet, the ineluctable need to see what people think about you immediately on the internet if you’re making something like that. So we were definitely in a time where we were—nobody was looking out. We were in a bubble, I guess.”

It was tempting, back then, to look upon Pavement with a very indie-rock-specific combination of awe and terror, as a bunch of guys so smart and cool and unapproachable they’d vaporize you on contact. Malkmus will concede now that his crew had quite a bit of “intellectual ammunition,” from their hard-knocks college-radio educations to his gig as a security guard at the Whitney to the ambient benefits of being young and living in New York City and seeing all the cool bands in person. “But the fact of the matter is,” he adds, “we were fronting, and acting cooler than we were like everyone else, and afraid, and nervous about whether what we’re doing is good or not. It’s after-the-fact justifications in the cover art and the titles. You try to make it seem like it’s better than it is. Like your Tinder profile or something.”

Indeed, Pavement were, for a brief but quite memorable period, pushable. But what made that time so memorable was their willingness to push back.

Ah, yes. The punch line—if you happened to be a big Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots fan for whom Pavement would be, in retrospect, by far the coolest thing you listened to in high school—was that Crooked Rain very famously throws hands at those two bands very specifically. Here is how the vicious final verse of “Range Life” begins:

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

Furthermore!

Stone Temple Pilots, they’re elegant bachelors
They’re foxy to me, are they foxy to you?

This was an extinction-level event to a mid-’90s Spin or Rolling Stone subscriber, and a tremendous source of anxiety if you happened to be both. Malkmus quickly tried to downplay the viciousness: “‘Range Life’ is supposed to be a person from the ’80s country-rock era, like Lone Justice or Dream Syndicate, not being able to keep up with what’s going on today,” he told Spin. “It’s not really a diss on those bands, it’s more like, ‘I don’t understand this MTV world.’” But Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan was, and very possibly remains, furious, dismissing Pavement’s cavalier attitude as “jealousy,” “true pettiness,” and “really pathetic” in a 1995 Rolling Stone article, and reigniting the feud a full 15 years later, dismissing Pavement’s gala 2010 reunion tour as a hypocritical sellout maneuver that represented “the death of the alternative dream.”

“He took it a little too personally, you know?” Kannberg says now. “The joke was more about the state of the music business at the time. It could have been any band. It could have been Pearl Jam or something. We could have gotten in trouble with Pearl Jam instead of Smashing Pumpkins. Which could have been bigger, maybe, huh?”

It is dismaying that one of Pavement’s prettiest, dreamiest, most wistful songs is mostly remembered for this goofy feud, but “Range Life” still sounded wonderful during that reunion tour. After Crooked Rain, the band put out three more records, none better, but all still frequently spectacular: 1995’s Wowee Zowee is the sprawling and startling epic, 1997’s Brighten the Corners is the relatively clean and poppy delight, and 1999’s Terror Twilight, though a fraught document of the band’s imminent breakup, is better than you remember. And then, well, they broke up, and for a solid decade their reputation grew enormously, and the distance between their stature and a far better-selling band like, well, Smashing Pumpkins’ shrunk significantly, the way the nuances of any era gradually telescope and self-filter and leave behind, theoretically, just the good stuff.

Which is why Pavement could get away with that stupendous 2010 reunion tour, an extended festival-stage jaunt that welcomed them back as conquering heroes, as indie- and alt-rock stars both, the distinction now utterly meaningless. (That same year, they even put out a greatest-hits album, called, of course, Quarantine the Past.) It was a leap in public stature nearly as huge as the original one the band took in 1994. “During Crooked Rain, we figured out that we weren’t anywhere near as good live ’cause we were too far away from each other,” Nastanovich says. “You’re playing in a lot of cases on these really immense stages—we went from being a band that played on stages we could barely fit on to these stages that could fit 25 or 40 people on them. And in order to sound anything close to the way we wanted to sound as a band, which is something that we’re always pretty self-conscious about, we had to tighten up our formation.”

They were careful to hide that self-consciousness back in 1994, but you can still hear it in Crooked Rain. If you’re listening to this album for the billionth time, I recommend focusing on the drums, the way West, then very much the new guy, can both pummel (on “Unfair” and even “Cut Your Hair”) and swing (on deeper, sultrier cuts like “Stop Breathin’” or the extra-slithery “Newark Wilder”) with a sophistication the band was just as careful to disguise. “Some of those songs still really hold up, I think,” Kannberg says. “Most of them do. We took a lot of care. Even though we came off as these, like, ramshackle guys who were slackers or whatever who didn’t care, we actually did really care about it all. And really thought about what was out there.”

Malkmus jumped straight from Pavement to an often fantastic solo career that’s still going: Sparkle Hard, his bold and restless seventh album credited to Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, was one of the best albums of 2018, and he’s got an even bolder electronic album, Groove Denied, coming out in March. Kannberg has put out several messy and beautiful albums of his own, and plans to play more old Pavement songs than usual on his next tour. He hears his old band’s influence in younger bands quite a bit, and would be delighted if those younger bands would pay it forward, or backward. “I wish they would take me on tour with them,” he jokes. “Whatever, you know? We showed the love to our favorite bands on our tour. I’m like, ‘Come on guys. Throw me a bone, here.’ The National? I can go tour with the National, right? Yeah?”

The end result is you can put on “Gold Soundz” a quarter-century later and feel the same nostalgic warmth that the song itself radiated the very first time you heard it, and it hardly matters anymore how you’d classify it, or how thoroughly you can explain it, or whether it leaves you vexed or smitten anew. It is simply one of the best songs of its era from one of the best bands of its era, one that did succeed, despite appearances, in setting the world half-alight.

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