Pavement Ist Rad: A Brief History of Stephen Malkmus
A WPTS Special Feature by Spencer Smith
Pavement is a rock band, formed in the late 80’s in California. They are known mostly for either their slacker, lo-fi aesthetic or broad influence on the indie-sphere of the 2010’s following their split at the turn of the century; however, these combined are barely half of the story of the group. Pavement’s lo-fi period basically ended with the release of their first LP, Slanted & Enchanted, which was followed by four varied albums, all extremely up-to-snuff with the cult classic that was their debut. The band stayed on an indie label, despite near commercial success in 1994, with their sophomore, quasi-classic rock effort, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, which to me solidifies their status as true college radio darlings.
Following their break up, frontman Stephen Malkmus has had an incredibly solid solo career, expanding on the sounds toyed with on more cleanly-produced Pavement releases, with the same stylistic variety from release-to-release. Malkmus’ seventh release, Sparkle Hard, comes out this Friday, and he shows no signs of dropping in quality of his music or witty interviews. In preparation for one of my most anticipated releases for the year, I have assembled a playlist showcasing deep cuts, B-sides, and favorites from every Pavement and SM release, with a brief write-up on the band’s (and Malkmus’) history. My goal with this article is to help those intimidated by the group’s discography find a point of entry, and for fans of the band to enjoy the thoughts and knowledge of an enthusiastic peer. To keep this from getting too ramble-y, I am not going go in-depth on the content of individual songs, as that would make this longer than it already is; however, I do reference tracks here and there to make my point about each release.
- Jackals, False Grails: The Lo(-fi)nesome Era (1989 – 1992)
The band initially housed the songwriting talents of two twenty-somethings on their breaks from college, Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg (aka SM and Spiral Stairs, respectively), before being joined by local Stockton, CA producer and Animal-reminiscent drummer, Gary Young. they created a string of three EPs in the late 80’s and early 90’s. These releases were each between ten and fifteen minutes in length, incredibly lo-fi in their production, and somewhat chaotic in their use of feedback and clips of noise.
The most intriguing part of these three releases are the group’s growing penchant toward pop: Slay Tracks (1933-1969), released on the band’s own Treble Kicker label, kicks off this trio of EPs with a collection of percussive, gritty songs, most of which are a bit of a mouthful on first listen, aside from the innocent and fantastic “Box Elder.” Demolition Plot J-7 has similar noise experiments to their first EP, but is laced with some truly memorable cuts, some sassy and a bit atonal still (“Forklift”); others near-perfect noise pop, possessive of an untouchable quality I’ve found in few songs ever (“Perfect Depth”). This was the band’s first EP released on the Drag City label. The final member in this three EP run is 1991’s Perfect Sound Forever, titled after a Sony ad campaign touting the enduring quality of their new line of CDs. It displays Malkmus’ knack for loosely bound songs with amazing melodies beneath squealing feedback (“Home”, “Debris Slide”) in an awe-inspiring 11 minutes. After this EP (and a brief single for “Summer Babe”), the band parted ways with Drag City. These early releases were neatly packaged into a compilation called Westing (By Musket and Sextant) in ’93.
Finished in early ‘91, the group’s debut, Slanted & Enchanted, was distributed to critics with inconsistent track ordering, no song titles, and no label affiliated with it. While this sounds like a commercial nightmare, it somehow generated a decent amount of hype from critics before it was finally released in April ‘92, a culmination of the lo-fi sound of their initial EPs, with bubblegum pop melodies (“Trigger cut”, “Here”) and noisy experimentation (“Conduit for Sale”, “Chesley’s Little Wrists”) getting equal representation. The fuzzy sonic palette is also complemented by SM’s best lyrics yet, with well-read imagery portrayed in a Dada-esque manner. This is also the band’s last release as a trio, and the band’s first release on Matador, their imprint for the rest of their career.
On tour for S&E, the band gained bassist Mark Ibold and miscellaneous percussionist/hype man Bob Nastanovich, who joined Malkmus, Kannberg, and Young to record Watery, Domestic, released in November ‘92. This is perhaps the group’s most consistent release of all time, with four tracks of solid gold, lo-fi indie pop, and Young’s last album with the band, due to his erratic and drunken nature at shows, often handing out vegetables to attendants and doing headstands. These tracks, along with some marvelous outtakes from these sessions (namely “So Stark (You’re a Skyscraper)”), are included on the deluxe edition of S&E (Luxe and Reduxe), along with a live set from Brixton Academy. Also featured is unreleased material from Pavement’s first two live sessions with legendary BBC Radio DJ and tastemaker, John Peel.
The first three years of the band’s existence are likely their most influential to the indie scene; creating incredibly memorable songs with low-budget recording techniques is the crux of what this musical movement is.
- Gold Soundz (1993 – 1997)
Poised for a breakout release coming off the cult classic that was S&E, ‘94 was a big year, with the release of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement’s version of a classic rock album, featuring Malkmus come into his own with soaring guitar hooks and seamless changeups on almost every song. Also featured is the wry “Cut Your Hair,” which almost broke Pavement into the mainstream, the Billy Corgan-rattling “Range Life,” and some more oddball cuts (“Fillmore Jive”, “5 – 4 = Unity”).
1994 also saw the release of Starlite Walker by the Silver Jews, a melancholy, alt-country album featuring Malkmus, Nastanovich, and recently added Pavement drummer, Steve West. The album is fantastic primarily due to the songwriting of David Berman but also proves an interesting listen in the context of CR, CR. The other tracks of this era are packaged in the deluxe edition of the album, which is likely the my least favorite of the four reissues, however there are some great tracks. A small set of songs recorded with Gary Young in Stockton features “All My Friends,” where an earnest Malkmus delivers some powerful vocals, while “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence” is an R.E.M. tribute found on the No Alternative compilation and is a sweet look into the band’s influences.
The story goes that on tour for their “breakout album,” the band got somewhat fed up with their growing popularity, and perhaps the higher attendance for their shows. This mindset combined with SM’s alleged habit for smoking a lot of weed at this time yielded Wowee Zowee. Pavement’s longest and most varied release also proved to be the commercial failure they had allegedly hoped for (the group actually got pelted with mud when they played Lollapalooza on tour for this album). Most followers of the band mourn over how underrated this album, but at this point the cult surrounding it is big enough that it is probably in most fans’ top-two. Most tracks on Wowee Zowee feel like they were written for a Sunday morning drive, somewhat hazy and still waking up, but still beautiful and cozy (“Black Out”, “Motion Suggests Itself”). The main gripe most have (or had) with this album is its stylistic inconsistency, as outside of the core ten-or-so songs that meet the bill for a tranquil, somewhat stoned album, are some odd tracks. “Serpentine Pad” and “Flux = Rad” are both punk tracks under two minutes, while “Fight this Generation” and “Half a Canyon” are some of the most strung out tracks in the band’s discography.
It’s a bit of a grab bag, but it grows on you and is probably my favorite release of theirs. Another draw to Wowee Zowee are the stellar extra tracks found on its companion EPs (Pacific Trim and Rattled by la Rush), neatly compiled on the album’s Sordid Sentinels Edition. There are too many good tracks to name them all, with songs for those who enjoyed the calm parts of the album (“Easily Fooled”, “Give it a Day”) or the manic parts of it (“False Skorpion”, “Kris Kraft”). The live versions here are also out of this world – both a freak folk version of “Fight this Generation” (featuring a Bob Nastanovich recorder solo…oh yes) and a recording of “Brink of the Clouds” with the silly-yet-impactful “Candylad” tacked onto it.
Following their “unfocused” third album is Brighten the Corners, perhaps the most conceptual and accessible Pavement got. Some say that this is more of a logical progression from the sound of CR, CR, but I’d say this is hypercritical: the more psychedelic, clean tracks on Wowee are very indicative of the sound of the clean, “classic” sound of Corners. Malkmus flexes both his guitar chops and vocabulary on this release, with cryptic phrasing shrugging toward an overarching anti-marriage sentiment backed by perhaps the most interesting structures and spacy landscape of any Pavement release. The singles, “Stereo” and “Shady Lane,” stand among the band’s most popular tracks, spawning a performance on Conan. The former is a bizarre, sarcastic track about popularity, a la “Cut Your Hair,” and the latter represents the twinkly, coy attitude of the album perfectly.
The leftover tracks from this period in the band’s history are included on Brighten the Corners: Nicene Creedence Edition. There are a lot of unreleased songs from this era, with rawer recordings featuring SM quasi-conducting the band (“Cataracts”, “Nigel”) as well as some great B-sides for the singles on the original album (“Harness Your Hopes”, “Roll with the Wind”). Some notable moments on the second disc are a cover of The Fall’s “The Classical” from another Peel Session; two versions of the theme from Cartoon Network show “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” documenting their visit to the show (as the Beatles); and a high energy radio session featuring a Stereolab-influenced track, “It’s a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl,” and a rare performance of “Maybe Maybe” from Slay Tracks, their debut EP.
- Major Leagues (1999 – 2003)
While there is still one final Pavement album, Terror Twilight, to be discussed, I have included it in the section on SM’s solo work for a few reasons. First, this is the first full-length album to not include a song by co-founding member, Spiral Stairs. Producer Nigel Godrich, fresh off work on OK Computer (Radiohead) and Mutations (Beck), also is said to have focused on working with Malkmus more than any other member, adding to the tension in the group that would eventually lead to their demise. Stylistically, this also likens to SM’s later work, with commingling guitar and vocal melodies, as well as the liberal use of delay. The album extends on the vast, psychedelic sound of Brighten the Corners, which is likely taken even further due to Godrich’s history of more atmospheric records before this one.
SM has commented recently on the flaws of Terror Twilight, that band conflicts lead to different views of what the album was going to look like, leading to a more split album. On top of this, another drummer had to be brought in for a few songs, as West could not perform them, and Malkmus drummed on one song just for kicks. Some songs gave the minimal, echoey sound that seemed to be the goal of Malkmus and Godrich (“The Hexx”, “Spit on a Stranger”, “You are a Light”), while others were loud (“Platform Blues”) or poppy (“Major Leagues”, “…and Carrot Rope”). After this album, one more EP was released, titled Major Leagues EP, after the soft, lamenting TT cut. This includes the Spiral Stairs songs left off the album, one of my favorites from him (“Stub Your Toe”), as well as a few SM demos, including the interesting half-French cut, “Decouvert De Soleil.”
Overall, it is no surprise the group broke up upon conclusion of the tour for Terror Twilight. The band’s final show at Brixton Academy in London is featured in the Pavement documentary Slow Century directed by Lance Bangs, and featured SM comparing being in a band to the handcuffs slung on his mic stand. Thus, the band ended their rule as the best band of the 90’s just as the decade ended.
Two short years after Terror Twilight, Malkmus released his first album without Pavement, with who would eventually become the Jicks. While the self-titled record’s cover wears its 2001 release date on its sleeve, the songs within are solid. The album follows TT’s more acrobatic, layered guitar work, but with Malkmus flexing his creative freedom, showing off his wide array of influences, whether they be world music, post-rock, or electronic. These signs of progression are exciting and interesting, but the lack of collaboration occasionally leads to some odd decisions, like the inclusion of a tale of Turkish pirate kidnapping (“The Hook”). Fortunately, these moments don’t harm the album much, as there is a lot to appreciate here: SM’s lyrics are as well-read as ever, without losing their emotional impact (see: “Church on White”). Structure is also toyed with frequently, with highest returns on “Pink India.” Stephen Malkmus is a good collection of songs that retrospectively proves to be a stepping stone from the more lax Pavement jams toward some wild, cohesive works that he would create later in his work with the Jicks.
In 2003, Pig Lib was released, the first album credited to SM and Jicks. Likely my favorite post-Pavement material, this album is impressively varied while holding onto its cohesiveness, containing both poppy, organ-based tunes (“Vanessa from Queens”, “Ramp of Death”) and seemingly tempo-less, long-winded epics (“1% of One”, “Water and a Seat”). To me, this is the album Malkmus was always meant to make, giving a home to some of his biggest melodic and structural accomplishments, such as some dramatic codas (“Do Not Feed the Oyster”) and the jaw-dropping faux-ending-to-solo on “Animal Midnight.” Lyrically, Pig Lib continues SM’s increasingly more out-there word choice, yielding mostly impactful, occasionally silly results.
- Post-Paint Boy (2005 – 2010)
Keeping with the reasonably-spaced releases, 2005 saw the release of the home-recorded Face the Truth, which featured Malkmus recording most instruments himself. Having mastered the smooth, quasi-progressive sound that he had been developing arguably since Brighten the Corners, this album feels transitional, and just plain off-the-walls. The first moment of sound on this album is the squelching, Velcro-y synth line of “Pencil Rot,” just one of the tribal, psychedelic cuts of this album. While a few softer, melodic songs could have a home on previous SM albums (“Mama”), the prevailing tone here is just plain odd. Utilizing folk and world music textures with raw synth work and stereo mixing, Face the Truth is at first overwhelming, claustrophobic, and generally DIY; however, after finding solace in the handful of classic Malkmus pop songs here (“Freeze the Saints”), the zanier bits of this album start to stick.
SM virtually throws out the formula he had been working on for the past six-or-so years, trying his hand at tom-heavy, electronic-influenced slabs of music, with minimal structure (“Kindling for the Master”, “Baby C’mon”). The fact that this strange bunch of songs works this far into his career is another feat altogether. An interesting video from this era is an acoustic solo set on LA radio station, KCRW, giving a minimal, humanizing treatment to these songs, for those turned off by the “basement style” of the album recording.
Following the self-made concoction of Face the Truth is the comparatively heavier Real Emotional Trash. Contrary to the title, this album is no more vulnerable or sappy than any other SM album. It is also the first of two Jicks releases featuring Janet Weiss of Quasi and Sleater-Kinney, who seems to have been consciously brought on to strengthen the heavier sound of the album. Compared to the near-freak folk aesthetic of Face the Truth, this album is distorted, drawing from stoner rock and near Sabbath-sounding guitar tones. In place of the inventive sonic architecture of his last two releases, SM steps a foot in the blues, for fuzzier sounds than even Pavement, with loose structure and solos tacked on at every opportunity. Malkmus has always written songs on guitar, but these are more written for guitar.
That is not to say that Real Emotional Trash does not have interesting or redeeming moments. The opening two tracks, while still rooted deeply in the rest of the album’s approach, both bring something to the table: the former with some of the rawest verses in SM’s catalog, with a feelgood changeup featuring bouncy synth and marimba, and the latter with CAN-esque freak-out, a band Malkmus has no reservations praising. The closer (“Wicked Wanda”) sticks out amongst the rest of Trash, having percussion-less moments, vast vocal harmonies and synth textures paired with more subtle distortion usage. The album’s main flaw is a sameness that blurs together the middle of the album, which is not helped by the straightforward blues rock decisions made on a lot of tracks.
After Real Emotional Trash, SM performed a few solo shows where he began to play more Pavement tracks, at times all acoustic. This led to Pavement’s 2009 reunion celebrating their record label, Matador’s, 20th anniversary and a greatest hits collection. Following this show, and a few TV appearances, the group embarked on a reunion tour in 2010.
- No One Is (As I Are Be) (2011 – Present)
After the less-indie-more-rock curveball that was Real Emotional Trash is the Beck-produced Mirror Traffic, a sunny album that sums up the Jicks sound more than any other album. This album is similar to the first two post-Pavement SM works, but with a bit more patient feel, featuring mostly clean riffs and even some pedal steel guitar yielding some borderline alt-country tracks (“Long Hard Book”). Admittedly, there are a few songs I don’t love here (“Senator”), mostly due to increasingly fearless lyrical choices or deterring from the pensive mood of Mirror Traffic; however, the run from “Brain Gallop to “Fall Away” is a sonically cohesive set of songs, one of my favorites in all of Malkmus’ work.
This middle section features not only some indie guitar rock gems (“Stick Figures in Love”), but also what seems to be SM reflecting on his mortality with some vulnerable lyrics. There are also some beautiful vignettes (“Jumblegloss”, the end of “Share the Red”) that are great for the record’s flow, as well as some crazier songs, like the pleasantly rambling “Spazz.” Beck’s presence is welcome and unobtrusive on this album, with the bulk of his influence coming down to some word-less melodies and subdued instrumental choices that match the album’s feel well, like the Beatles-y horns on “No One Is (As I Are Be)”.
The final release before this year’s Sparkle Hard is 2013’s Wig Out at Jagbags, which at its core is the younger, peppier sibling of Mirror Traffic, with countless memorable hooks paired with syncopated melodies and rhythms. Of the poppier cuts on the album, the horn-heavy, Jimmy Buffet-esque “Chartjunk” and sprawling, soloing opener “Planetary Motion” set the tone for Jagbags, which overall feels rooted in classic rock influences, while belonging equally so to modern times. Along with these chipper tunes is the nostalgic single “Lariat,” likely the most popular SM solo track, in part due to Spotify Discover algorithms. A series of down-tempo tracks featuring some heartland piano playing allow for some breathing room from the poppier numbers on this album, while simultaneously allowing Malkmus to do his Eagles impression (“Houston Hades”) or shed some more poetic lyrics (“J Smoov”) and crooning (“Cinnamon and Lesbians”).
Capitalizing on the half-alt-country teases he has penned a handful of times in the past few decades, namely the final two on Jagbags, SM’s newest release, out today, is his attempt at a tried and true alt-country release. It is called Sparkle Hard, and was recorded in conjunction with an electronic release that was rejected by Matador (fingers crossed we will here that one day). Find WPTS’s review of it next week, and until then enjoy the album, as well as a B-sides, rarities, and favorites playlist below that spans from Slay Tracks to Jagbags, assembled by yours truly.
You can tune in to hear Spencer host “Out There” from 6 to 7 PM on Thursdays on WPTS Radio and follow his Spotify here. This feature was edited by Nick Jacobyansky of the WPTS Editorial Board