Pavement's Greatest Hits
The unthinkable has happened.
Also in Slate, Zach Baron discusses the Pavement reunion and the end of baby boomer cultural hegemony.
On the drums, a Virginia gentleman named Steve West raps out martial rhythms and taps sequins from his cymbals. (West is a subject of "Westie Can Drum," a band-about-a-band B-side about keeping time in the fourth dimension.) The grinning lad on tambourine is Bob Nastanovich. Originally hired to back up and baby-sit Pavement's first drummer, Nastanovich contributes color by way of percussion and charm by way of extroversion, bouncing like a mascot and hooting in falsetto. He elsewhere supplies bloops of Moog, Atari-type explosive crashes, backup cackles, stage patter, more cowbell, so on. The bassist, Mark Ibold, has a natural gait suiting the band's Western streak—easy trots, brash gallops, abrupt giddy-ups.
The group's founders play guitar. One is Scott Kannberg, identified as Spiral Stairs in the riddling packaging of the band's earliest recording, as befits a rhythm guitarist given to swirls and scales of drone. The other is Stephen Malkmus, or S.M., who spends much of the Tonight clip addressing "Cut Your Hair" to his own bangs—a familiar pose in the days before he learned to be less shy with his vulnerability and more direct about working his looks. He emits some auk-like calls to turn the audience off, shreds his solo diligently, and is almost even believable when sneering the line "I really don't care," the wannabe slacker. It is unclear whether the final crash of noise in this performance really results from Jay Leno's handshake accidentally knocking Malkmus's guitar from its strap. It is altogether plausible that this is a practical joke. Again, this is a band that convinced the author of a fanzine-ish authorized biography that "the National Word Association of America"—an organization with no proven existence outside of those quotation marks—officially deemed pavement the 20th-most pleasant word in the English language. In any case, as an advertisement for art noise, the crash ranks with Kim Gordon's go-go dancing.
Who do you suppose would win a rap battle between Alex Ross and S/FJ? I ask because Ross once wrote a sturdy piece on Pavement that, though eloquent in recognizing that the band "protects the core of its mystery," still enhances that mystery—enriches a shroud, say—in its reading of Pavement lyrics. Ross takes the stands that they're pure nonsense—meaningful nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless—which is impure nonsense. The slipstream-of-consciousness verbal arrangements include all sorts of mean quips, rough drafts of riddles, automatic puns, and novelistic details insistent on making throwaway lines seem indisposable, and the sensibility generally coheres in a recognizable literary way. Sometimes we get hard-core koans, with the refrain of "Range Life," making sense at least six ways: "If I could settle down, then I would settle down."
The best showcase for this lyrical gift—this Dada da-da-dum—might be the fourth track on Quarantine the Past, "Stereo," a song busy with bubbling bass, chatting guitars, Plan-9-from-outer-space alien noises, and hooks that parody themselves, tweaking before giving way to murderous guitar squalls. It is another song about song, a rock song like a rap song about holding the mic—"Hey! Listen to me! I'm on the stereo!"—but sort of done as a score for Saturday daytime television. Malkmus sings the line "pigs they tend to wiggle when they walk" like bouncing a ball across syllables at the bottom of a cartoon; a taunting play on words about checking "signatures" conflates the band's musical staff with its legal one; we head into each chorus with a dry "Hi-ho, Silver!", alone on the range. The song "rocks" very hard in conventional terms, its only disappointment being its indifference to ending neatly. Pavement can be wary that way, suspicious of big finishes, tidy endings, grand finales, and fancy paraphs. Maybe they deserve an A-minus for effort for that reason, the half-grade docked on account of their strongly mixed feelings about the duty to leave us wanting more.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph of Stephen Malkmus by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images.