Everybody's taste is different, and to understand my taste, I think I have to describe it to you as best I can. I like organically created pop music. I am a huge fan of the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus formula. It's a jumping off point for everything from Chuck Berry to the Beatles to the Sex Pistols to The Pixies to Radiohead to Weezer to everything that has happened in rock music from the very beginning. I think rock starts losing its way when it strays from the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format too far. I can't take those jam bands and their 20 minute noise-polluter songs.
That describes the structure I like. In content, I tend to gravitate away from the party-boy stylings of classic rock and more towards moody, introspective, or mournful songs. I've been accused of liking "sad bastard" music, and that's not entirely incorrect. Give me a Violent Femmes song about frustrations with girls any day over a Van Halen song about sleeping with your teacher. But that's a topic for another day. The introductions are done, and now we need to focus on Pavement.
Thanks to Poseur for finally getting me to get off my butt and listen to Pavement a couple years ago. Poseur's a big fan of their first album, "Slanted and Enchanted", which I like just fine, but my favorite Pavement album is their second one, "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain".
Pavement doesn't fit cleanly into my usual style, though it's not terribly far removed. It's definitely not "sad bastard" music, but it's definitely not closely related to Van Halen either. (You'll have to pardon me as I will frequently cite Van Halen as my personal icon for everything that I dislike in musical lyrics.) It's sort of a combination of fun music and lyrics that defy easy characterization.
To me, Pavement was a bit of an acquired taste. Pavement's early stuff was kind of poppy, but deliberately imperfect. You can hear all the mistakes that are made in the instruments. Singer Stephen Malkmus is hardly a polished singer, and his off-tune style can be a little off-putting if you aren't used to it. You can hear the hiss of the amps and even the occasional stray noise in the studio, and Pavement doesn't care. They're also just about the least hard-rock looking band you'll ever see. They look like they could be the guys in the fraternity house. Well, maybe they could be the hipsters in the fraternity house.
If you don't believe me, check out a 1994 performance of "Gold Soundz" off of Crooked Rain:
Beavis & Butthead famously reviewed one of Pavement's music videos, "Cut Your Hair". They said of it, "These guys just aren't trying hard enough." And it is true that Stephen Malkmus makes it look so very easy. But then again, brilliance often looks like it is so simple. Wayne Gretzky made it look like it was easy to score goals in the NHL. Michael Jordan made it look like it was easy to get to the goal in the NBA. Jerry Rice made it look like it was easy to score touchdowns. Stephen Malkmus makes it look easy to put together perfect pop songs.
The genius of Stephen Malkmus is that he makes so many of his songs sound so right, that it's almost as if the songs were simply sitting in the ether, placed there by the gods, waiting for some mortal to find and claim them.
"Crooked Rain" is probably their most accessible album. Starting with their 3rd album, "Wowee Zowee", they went to a more experimental, noisy style that didn't appeal to me nearly as much as their earlier, poppier stuff. Standouts on the album include the morose ballad "Stop Breathing":
breathing for me now
write it on a postcard
dad they broke me
dad they broke me
The classic song from this album, and one that is required listening for every rock music fan is the brilliant "Range Life":
out on my skateboard the night is just humming
and the gum smacks are the pulse i'll follow if my walkman fades
but i've got absolutely no one, no one but myself to blame
As an added bonus, the song contains a brilliant but completely uncalled for shot at Smashing Pumpkins, and it really bothered Billy Corgan. A feud developed over the years, one that I am sure endlessly amused Stephen Malkmus and endlessly annoyed Billy Corgan.
The source of the feud is, as I see it, that Pavement was completely free of artifice. The band members didn't have a particular fashion style, and seemed indifferent to their public image. Like I said, they looked like anything but the typical rock band, while the Smashing Pumpkins went out of their way to look like '90s alt-rock versions of rock gods. Pavement looked like they could be waiting tables at Bennigan's on a Saturday night. You might call them hippies and not tip them well, but they wouldn't look terribly out of place.
Fortunately for the relatively new converts to Pavement, Matador Records has started putting out their old albums in Special Edition format, complete with B-sides, live cuts, John Peel sessions, and alternate versions. The bonus material is just as good as the canonical material, and I would highly recommend spending the extra couple of dollars to get the special editions.