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November 2, 2004

Matador revives another watershed album by '90s alternative rock icons

The wonderful thing about reissues is that they allow you to rediscover a long-beloved band, often through the dual delights of bonus tracks and remastered recording. Sometimes they let you unearth an album that had previously evaded your shelves of CDs or LPs, which is what happened to me back in April. Sony released a 10th anniversary edition of Nas' landmark Illmatic at the end of March and, due to my regal position at the maroon, I received a promo copy in the mail.

Already a fan of hip-hop with an ever-growing collection of seminal albums, I welcomed Illmatic into my life with open ears, and it blew them clear off my head. Although Illmatic left much to be desired as a reissue (Just four remixes and two news songs in addition to the ten originals? C'mon), I was glad to have the opportunity to acquaint myself with an acknowledged masterpiece. The record might make my year's top 10 just for existing.

Matador's stellar re-release of Pavement's second album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, fits into my latter category of reissues. That is, the reissue allows me to delve deeper into the back catalogue of a band I already love, and to reconsider an album that I (and everyone else) consider to be one of the best of the '90s. Like Illmatic, CRCR (as dubbed in the press notes; not to be confused with CCR) was originally released in 1994, the dawn of a new era for East Coast rap, as represented by Nas, and the continuation of the auspicious rise of slacker rock, as represented by those boys from Stockton, California: Pavement.

The reissue is officially titled Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: L.A.'s Desert Origins because this album is far more than the contents of CRCR; it consists of three more albums worth of material. All together, we have two discs: the original album, 25 unreleased recordings, and 11 previously unreleased songs. Combine that with original album art work, a 63-page booklet featuring period photos and interviews, and Pavement's sense of the humorously absurd, and you have a package worth much more than retail price (about $16 on Amazon). Seriously, I got this album for free, and I actually feel a little dirty.

Although CRCR was not my introduction to Pavement, it was the album that made me love them. When I was still filling out my collection of albums by bands I thought I should know about, I bought the records that bookend Pavement's decade-long career: first 1999's Terror Twilight, and then 1992's Slanted and Enchanted. Relatively unimpressed, I still held Stephen Malkmus' post-Pavement band the Jicks in higher regard than its predecessor until the summer of 2003, when I discovered CRCR. Bam! I then flocked to the used section of my local record store to procure 1995's Wowee Zowee and 1997's Brighten the Corners, thus completing my roundabout tutorial in literate, hummable, smart, '90s alternative rock. How had I ever lived without these records?

Like any influential album, I still remember the first time that I played CRCR: fittingly, I would later find, at the beginning of a road trip. I was on my way to Vermont from the North Shore of Massachusetts, and perhaps the most perfect opening song of any record came over the speakers. "Silence Kit" purposefully stumbles out of the gate, but then, when it finds its footing, becomes a song that is not afraid to ride a classic melody. So goes the rest of the album, with Pavement incorporating various genres in song after song. The lounge rock of "Newark Wilder" occupies the same world as the country-western "Range Life," and the Dave Brubeckian "5 - 4 = Unity" sets the stage for the inevitable ode to classic rock excess and bloat, the six-and-a-half minute "Fillmore Jive."

In its recent review of the reissue, Pitchforkmedia.com cites CRCR as one of the easiest albums to "put on in the car and let play start to finish." Just as I experienced on my early-summer road trip, this album has no lag. Its musical variety and simultaneously invaluable and inconsequential lyrics help grease the rails of the listening train. The music is far from brainless, but it does roll between the ears with nary an obstacle on the tracks.

That said, L.A.'s Desert Origins captures Pavement at, in my personal opinion, its best. Having matured from the joint hesitancy and pretension of their debut Slanted and Enchanted (which was re-released in almost as meticulous a fashion in 2002), the studio sessions for CRCR show Pavement, with an enhanced line-up and growing popularity, as a band hitting its stride. Although the earlier studio takes with original drummer Gary Young are good, the best songs are those with new drummer Steve West, and the additions of Bob Nastanovich and Mark Ibold to the nucleus of Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg (aka Spiral Stairs) create the lineup that would exist until the band's 1999 breakup.

The best songs of the sum total of 49 are those that either riff on the great early-middle period of Pavement albums (CRCR and Wowee, my two favorites), or are different versions of songs from those albums. This reissue features the version of "Grounded" that perhaps should have made it to Wowee Zowee, and an homage to/send-up of R.E.M. ("Unseen Power of the Picket Fence") that deserves to have been heard earlier. Although Malkmus always wears his sarcasm on his sleeve, songs such as "Strings of Nashville" and "Same Way of Saying" are genuinely affecting pseudo-ballads. Not all of these songs would deserve a place on a Pavement studio release, but there are hardly any tracks that could be considered merely filler. Many of these songs are, in fact, true gems.

Pavement seems to simultaneously define the '90s and be merely a footnote citing some strange outside source. From their clothes to their words to their collective attitude, the quintet avoided bombast of any form. Their music reflects a brand of California confidence and languor, with Stephen Malkmus' lyrics and album art packaging songs that are quite humble at heart, but could be accused of intentional obscurity and cooler-than-thou condescension. This impression originates from the band's shambling aesthetic, with Malkmus' post-modern collage art finding its match in his sometimes metaphoric, usually free-associative lyrics, which, as this reissue can attest, would change from take to take.

Although it sometimes seems as if Pavement combined a slacker vibe with poetic persuasion just a little too perfectly to be effortless, I do believe that the band was just trying to make good music. The barbs they throw at fellow '90s icons the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots in "Range Life" (and even at R.E.M. in "Unseen Power") are meant to sting a little, but not for the purpose of starting a classic rock feud; rather, we are meant to be enlightened. As Malkmus says in his track-by-track notes, "The song is also like a burn on Pavement, showing us to be little, petty indie rockers trying to keep bands off our turf. It's not designed to upset anyone—it's fairly playful, I hope."

"Playful" is perhaps the word that best describes Pavement, although it might not do them justice. Behind their affected nonchalance are songs that communicate through their seeming nonsense, deceptively inscrutable without that ever being the point. Ultimately, the band was more thoughtful and consistent than many of its peers, which warrants Matador's lavish embellishment of their first two studio albums. As you peel away the layers of Pavement you only want to go deeper, which seems to be the mark of a great band. After all, Stephen Malkmus didn't want to start a fight with Billy Corgan. He only wanted to see if whoever was listening got the joke.