Sidewalking

Like millions of others around the world, I’ve been listening to the new edition of Terror Twilight by Pavement, which I also liked listening to when it first came out in 1999.

I’m sure there’s a reason why we’ve had to wait so long for this, since all the other Pavement albums had their expanded editions delivered over a decade ago. One possibility is it took a while to find any extra material to put on the extra discs. The versions of “The Classical” and “The Killing Moon” that were b-sides on the “Major Leagues” single got used already in the expanded Brighten The Corners. What we get here as new old material is mostly demos and rehearsal tapes, and also part of a live set. The latter includes a version of “Sinister Purpose” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. This is great reminder that for the best part of their career, Pavement’s sound was a fusion of 2 other US indie bands: Sonic Youth and R.E.M. One of those came from the South and the other repurposed a CCR song-title. Not that anyone minded, and some of these recordings were made at SY’s own Echo Canyon studio.

There were about 3 stages to Pavement’s career. There was the very early stuff that got gathered on the Westing (By Musket and Sextant) compilation, which didn’t get included in the later expanded editions. I lost my copy of that years ago but didn’t mind because it’s not so great. “Box Elder”, which got covered by the Wedding Present, was the only stand-out apart from the original version of “Summer Babe”. Most of that album sounds like They Might Be Giants playing around with post-punk sounds, and I’m quite sure TMBG are the unacknowledged influence on many of these American college bands, who learned about “surrealism” and “absurdism” from their early albums rather than listening to lecturers. Black Francis of the Pixies did at least mention he got on well with the 2 Johns and felt he had most in common with them, in an interview in the early 90s.

Slanted And Enchanted was their (relative) breakthrough, making them quite a big deal in the world of NME and Melody Maker in 1992, and meaning absolutely nothing compared to million-sellers like Automatic For The People. There was a lot of talk about how they were copying The Fall, which was hard to judge if you only knew the late 80s version of the Fall sound and not the 1979-1982 material that wasn’t easily available at that point. “Conduit For Sale!” is certainly a copy of “New Face In Hell” although the original owed a fair bit to “What Goes On” anyway; the group that did such flagrant steals as “Elves”, “Athlete Cured” (cf. Spinal Tap) and “(Jung Nev’s) Antidotes” are in no position to quibble at anyone else’s plagiarisation. I also think “Stop Breathin'” has a hint of “Hip Priest” but no one was commenting on that angle by that stage.

I wasn’t particularly keen on Pavement until I got to the Reading Festival in 1994 and “Summer Babe” was playing in the distance. The rest of their set included “Two States” and “Cut Your Hair” and a lot of other things that suddenly worked much better live than coming out of a stereo. That changed my mind, and also by that point they’d got past the business of having an old drummer who was a massive drinker and prone to annoying antics on stage.

Crooked Rain Crooked Rain is their best album, and it’s good that the expanded edition includes “Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence” as that sums up their model perfectly: they are the early R.E.M. songwriting being delivered through the sound of Sister and Daydream Nation, and it’s great. Although by the 90s R.E.M. meant megaselling Woolworths albums like Out Of Time, their early material is fantastic and as good as anything being done by angry young American guitarists from 1979-1984. “Radio Free Europe”, “Wolves, Lower”, “Gardening At Night”, “Talk About The Passion”, “Harborcoat” and the utterly perfect “Pretty Persuasion” are all works of genius. Pavement got it right with “Unfair”, “Gold Soundz” and also the industry-baiting “Range Life”.

Wowee Zowee was seen as a step-back at the time, and the end of the period as this special, indie-not-grunge band that was liked by the UK press that otherwise sneered at Pearl Jam and the rest of the post-Nirvana debris. It’s an album filled with an awareness that it’s at the end of some sort of era, either a personal or a generational one. “We Dance” sets the mood with the line “Check the expiration date, man”, which was allegedly given as “Check the expiration, Damon” when they were playing the festivals in 1995. “Fight This Generation” and some other anti-corporate lyrics point to the main concern being a sense of getting too old and needing a proper job with health plan and a road to retirement. As Mark E.Smith once said, the trouble with American indie bands is they want to pack it in and go to law school.

But at this point Pavement start getting mentioned by Justine from Elastica and other luminaries, and when Blur came out in 1997 the idea was around that the Americans had been the big influence on the new sound. I did wonder for a while if “Serpentine Pad” had been the starting point for “Song 2” but… probably not. At almost the same time, Brighten The Corners came out. The sound is now much smoother and the lyrics are either the quirky pop joy of the singles “Stereo” and “Shady Lane” or the getting-older anxiety of “We Are Underused” and “Date With IKEA” and Stephen is now really writing songs about becoming a character in a Douglas Coupland novel and rather wishing it had been the life shown in Thirtysomething.

Terror Twilight was more of the same, but now putting on a suit and tie to go to work with a proper record producer Nigel Godrich and aim to have proper success. Not everyone was happy with the new maturity, and there was the business of having handcuffs on stage at the final gig to represent that being in a band is just a big ole square job and not like goofing off as an art project. The quirky pop is represented again by “Spit On A Stranger”, “Folk Jam” and “Carrot Rope”, and the serious self-doubting stuff is “Major Leagues” and “Speak, See, Remember”. “The Hexx” might have been left over from earlier sessions as it sounds like a Crooked Rain song, and Malkmus did mention in interviews that it needed more work to get it to a final version he was happy with. There’s nothing here that sounds like The Fall although “Speak, See, Remember” starts a little like “Look, Know” before also going back to the mid-period Pavement sound.

There was more of the same in the Stephen Malkmus solo career, starting with a quirky pop song about Yul Brynner. I did not go to see their reunion tours or buy any more of his albums because I think that’s the best way to respect the spirit of all those songs written by the 30-year old version of himself who didn’t want to make an easy living from bestselling pap or settle into a comfortable middle age. The Quarantine The Past compilation is very good and properly comprehensive – it’s an advantage that they never had a big successful album draining attention away from the lo-fi early singles that hardly anyone had a chance to hear.

As we all know, “pavement” in US English does not quite mean the same as it does in UK English. The American term would be “sidewalk”. Another old band noticed that as well once, and their records didn’t sell much either, though they ended up repackaged in deluxe editions as well. The picture at the top is of course Sherman’s March To The Sea.

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