Revered 1990s Californian janglers Pavement released some brilliant records in their time. None more so than 1997’s ‘Brighten The Corners’, released 20 years ago today (February 11). But which is their best album? Here’s each of their albums to date in order of slacker greatness…
5. Wowee Zowee
Met with confused looks by critics on its 1995 release, in the intervening years revisionist ‘Wowee…’ apologists have since declared the 18 track double album a misunderstood classic. It’s certainly the band at their most eclectic and sprawling: too much weed, according to Malkmus, put him into an experimental frame of mind, leading to this anti-commercial fuck-you to the fair-weather fans they’d picked up after ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ singles ‘Cut Your Hair’ and ‘Gold Soundz’ caught fire. Its title was taken from a Frank Zappa track and, though dubbed Pavement’s own ‘Sgt. Pepper’, but their signature zig-zagging unpredictability and shapelessness, so magical in a pop context, here sounds dangerously like shit jam band noodling in places here. ‘Flux = Rad’, a coruscating flash of off-the-wall bayou-punk with a Beeefheart-ian bent and a little of Nirvana’s ‘Territorial Pissings’ about it, was a gem, though.
4. Terror Twilight
Squired by Radiohead producer, Nigel Godrich, whose ill-suited appointment has never been properly be explained (a super-technical and fastidious sci-fi futurist rendering scruffy American indie? Huh?), Pavement’s fifth and final album saw the Californians playing it straight – collapsing the ironic distance between artist and listener for an album of disarmingly sincere Americana. Devoid of their usual art-prankster archness and meta genre experiments, it’s Pavement without the quotation marks. And what with the clever-clever artifice no longer shielding the tricksy Malkmus, we got a glance of the big beating heart we never knew he had. ‘Spit on A Stranger’ is easy listening music for making friends to, while the accomplished country rock of ‘Folk Jam’ is lightyears from the proudly amateur goofball thrash of their debut. In a way it’s the band’s most complete, cogent and consistent record, and what they lose in idiosyncratic personality they make up in mannered songwriting.
3. Brighten The Corners
Dude, it’s not like they like cared what the critics thought, but just to prove they could play the game if they wanted, on ‘Brighten The Corners’ the band returned from the ‘Wowee Zowee’ wilderness like super-Jesus on a golden donkey, with a record bereft of a single weak song – radiantly alive, keenly present and amazingly lush, kicking off with the bolshy ‘Stereo’ – a bold and brash rock banger that let the finger-pointers over at Spin magazine know precisely exactly what time it was and then some. Also contains my favourite ever Pavement track – ‘Shady Lane’, which sounds to me a little like the first day of summer holidays.
2. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
The album that threatened to take the Californians overground, whether they liked it or not, owing to its glut of cutely spontaneous, immediate, melody-stroked bona fide radio-hits. Here Malkmus and co swapped the noise and thrash of ‘Slanted…’ for lush Californian jangles and big choruses. After Pixies ‘Doolittle’, ‘Crooked…’ is definitely my very favourite underground pop record of the era: there’s the Brit invasion overtones of ‘Cut Your Hair’, and ‘Elevate Me Later’, with its wealth of amazing guitar hooks. Then there’s the brilliantly written ‘Gold Soundz’ – which as many a Pavement super fan will tell you is the band’s finest tune. With its host of non-songs (‘Hit The Plane Down’), genre sketches (the blue-eyed jazz of ‘5-4=Unity’) and musical non-sequiturs (‘Heaven Is A Truck’) it’s an album that revelled in irrelevance. Oh and no slacker song is slacker than the funny, wondering, effortless and plain beautiful ‘Range Life’ – just a guy and his skateboard, rolling around the city, chatting shit, forgiving himself for past transgression, dreaming of the good life.
1. Slanted And Enchanted
Not since Hüsker Du spliced The Beatles with west coast hardcore had the American underground produced a sound so simultaneously gorgeous and punk to the bone as on ‘Slanted And Enchanted’, a changing of the guard kind of moment – the slackers taking on the mantle of alt-rock from early college rock bands like Hüsker and The Replacements. Opener ‘Summer Babe (Winter Version)’ is blazing and bright melodic punk but it was with ‘Here’ that ‘Slanted…’ went from being merely a great record to being an era-defining one, as Malkmus contemplates success, judges it silly, probably futile, and decides instead to stick around, have fun, fall in love, kill time, right there, right here. “Everything’s ending here… but I’m the only one who laughs,” he sings, a sentiment echoed later on ‘Billie’: “I was tired of the best years of my life.” If Cobain peered into the abyss and shrieked, Pavement merely shrugged and continued on down the path of wringing sad comedy from Generation X nihilism, because as the man says – what else you gonna do, die?