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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Album Review of the Week: Pavement - "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain"

Rating: 9.4/10

Pavement's first and last foray into the world of alternative radio, 1994's stellar Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, is one of those records that has stood the test of time thanks to impeccable songwriting and magnificent production. In a year when Soundgarden, Weezer, Oasis, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, and Nirvana all released legendary albums, Pavement's sophomore effort may standalone as the best of the bunch. While decidedly more accessible than their critically-acclaimed debut Slanted & Enchanted, the 1994 release sticks to the band's signature sound, including overlaying guitars and Stephen Malkmus' half-spoken vocals. Crooked Rain also shows off the band's laid-back, carefree attitude, without becoming sloppy or unfocused in a manner similar to the great Pixies album Surfer Rosa. In fact, Crooked Rain is more similar to Surfer Rosa than one would notice at first glance; seemingly simple tracks that are more complicated than they sound, strong songwriting, complementary production, and unique vocal styles mark just a few.

The songs of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain are open to a wide range of interpretations, due to puzzling, somewhat abstract lyrics. What someone may think is a happy song, another may find it sad, while a third still might think the lyrics mean nothing at all. Admittedly, it is very valid to interpret Malkmus' word as random, as is a common criticism of him. But while I disagree with this view, it's not crucial to the enjoyment of this masterpiece. The strength of this record doesn't lie in its lyrics, but in the emotions it exuberates, mainly happiness. Joyful guitars and jumpy drum patterns go perfectly with Malkmus' vocal stylings. You won't see him winning American Idol anytime soon, but that's not due to a lack of talent. No, instead Malkmus elects for a more minimalist approach; instead of belting out high notes, he breezily sings in a fashion that can simultaneously sound gleeful and hopeless. It's one of the most unique and recognizable voices in all of indie rock, and can only really be understood by hearing it, rather than reading a description of it.

Perhaps no song better summarizes Pavement's sound in three minutes than album opener "Silence Kit." The short piece (which incidentally is actually called "Silence Kid," as the song title was easily misread on the album artwork) fits multiple parts into 181 seconds, and yet does not feel too brief. Beginning with twenty seconds of instrumental warm-ups and jamming, two more instrumental sections are introduced before the vocals begin. Two verses and a chorus later, the tempo slows down into a blues-y outro. "Elevate Me Later" immediately kicks in with some surprising power chords in the chorus and a superb four-bar riff. Said riffs are prevalent on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and many of the album's hooks are actually guitar melodies rather than the usual vocal attention-grabber.

"Stop Breathin'" starts as a typical Pavement slow jam, but eventually the vocals and bass drop out, leaving the guitars to creep up on you while the drums maintain a steady, simple beat. By the time the bass hops back in, the anticipation has already built up, and before you know the instrumentals have picked up again. They fade away just as quickly as they arrived, before popping back in for one last measure.

The fourth track, "Cut Your Hair," is arguably Pavement's best, and certainly their most recognizable. Reaching #10 on the Billboard Modern Rock Charts, the song has remained one of indie's greatest anthems, and it's easy to see why. One of many earworm-inducing tracks on the album, "Cut Your Hair" benefits from the addictive hooks and memorable guitar parts that Pavement are so well known for. The guitar solo is not one to be overlooked, and Malkmus' performance here is one his most impressive. It's a song that slowly but surely builds up to subtly yet cathartic release, making it on the most beloved songs of the 1990's.

The following duo of songs, "Newark Wilder" and "Unfair," show off opposite sides of Pavement. The former is a slow-paced, melancholy tune, whereas the latter is a frantic rush of snares and electrifying guitar riffs, with Malkmus screaming some of the lyrics. Unfortunately, these two songs are often overlooked, due to being bookended by two of the great tracks of the 1990's.

The second of said bookends (the first being "Cut Your Hair') is the wonderfully blissful "Gold Soundz." A song as amazing as this one is virtually impossible to describe, so I'll let its legacy do the talking. Pitchfork named it their #1 song of the 1990's, a decade that many consider the golden age of Pitchfork-type of music, and mentions of the song in public forums are universally in praise it. The song even earned a twitter shout out from Real Madrid star midfielder Xabi Alonso, prompting many of his fans to discover a newfound love for the band. Those who love it zero in on the gorgeous melody and the outstanding multi-layered guitar solo in which three different guitar parts share the limelight, with the one in focus making way for another repeatedly. It really is best just to listen to the song, let it seep into you, get stuck in your head, and make you smile.

After the cleverly-titled jazzy instrumental "5 - 4 = Unity,"  "Range Life" tells the tale of an aging hippie with no sense of direction in 1990's America. You feel sympathetic for the protagonist, who clearly is lost in life and struggles to fill his simplest desires. It's the most folky track on the album, as well as the most controversial. The lyrics to the third verse, which appear to mock fellow 90's alt-rockers Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots, caused band rivalries and resulted in Pavement's being dropped from Lollapalooza's 1994 lineup after Pumpkins singer Billy Corgan threatened to leave the bill if Pavement weren't removed from the tour. Why this irked Corgan so much, probably, is that Malkmus is spot on. Smashing Pumpkins, while a great band in their own right, take themselves too seriously, Corgan especially. They're this extremely technical, egotistical group, and here's this lazy-sounding, simplistic newcomer mocking them.

The final quarter of the twelve tracks round out Crooked Rain well. "Heaven's a Truck" recalls the same sounds "Newark Wilder" employed earlier on the album, but in a more subdued and cynical manner. "Hit the Plane Down" is the oddest song on the record (aside from the instrumental track) and doesn't it with the rest of the album's vibe. Distorted vocals and abrasive guitars, along with a heavy tom-tom beat and dark lyrics ("there's no survivors"), drive the song forward. It's a more aggressive version of Pavement's "lazy" sound, and is the least enjoyable on the album. Still, it serves a purpose in the flow of the album, in that it mixes it up and displays a new side of Pavement. "Fillmore Jive," the album closer, is over six minutes of jamming, and truly feels like a goodbye, as all album closers should. There's a feeling of resolution here, but not necessarily a happy one; lyrics such as "goodnight to the rock and roll era" suggest the speaker is not satisfied with the way life has turned out, and it's not until now you realize the grander concept of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. What at first felt like a vibe album with the tracks being somewhat unrelated to each other now becomes a story of mid-life crisis, of realizing you've done nothing and have nowhere to go. We see glimpses of it throughout the record, most notably on "Range Life," but it's "Fillmore Jive" that really hits it home. The abstract instrumentals play in with this theme of insubstantiality, of a lack of importance to one's life. Now you can understand why the lyrics were somewhat random, because the protagonist's life has been aimless up to this point. Now lyrics such as "go back to those gold sounds" help you realize that the singer is reflecting on the "good old days" of music, music being a metaphor for life. The era the singer talks about is most likely the late '60's & early 70's, as the carefree attitude and down-to-earth values of the singer are typical of the Woodstock crowd. Also worth noting is that Malkmus was a Hendrix fan, and even taught himself to play guitar by listening to his music, further confirming that he most likely thinks of this time period as the pinnacle of "the rock and roll era."

The lyric I mentioned earlier, "goodnight to the rock and roll era"" is particularly fitting to the time period of the album's release; in just over two months, Kurt Cobain would be dead, and the grunge movement would die down. The mid-to-late 90's would be litter by bottom-feeding post-grunge & nu-metal groups like Candlebox, Creed, Limp Bizkit, and others, leading to the downfall of rock as king of the radio.

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a timeless piece of music, encapsulating everything great about '90's indie rock. Pavement would never again be able to recreate the magic found on their 1994 sophomore effort, leaving this as a very unique Pavement record. Never since have we seen a band with a minimalist approach and an attitude like Pavement's release anything as amazing, with the Strokes' Is This It the only do-it-yourself, who-cares type of album that even comes close. So sit back, enjoy, and be thankful that the '90's were what they were.Find the album on Spotify, and/or watch the whimsical videos for some key songs below.

Key tracks: "Silence Kit," "Cut Your Hair," "Gold Soundz," "Range Life"

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