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Wednesday, Jan 19, 2022

Kill Your Idols: Like, whatever, man

Pavement in all their glory.
Pavement in all their glory.

A couple issues back, I talked about Hüsker Dü’s 1986 album New Day Rising and, more importantly, its status as a landmark record that went on the influence alternative rock for years to come. And now I’d like to go on to explain to both of my readers exactly what sort of influence SST records and their bands had on the decade to come.

The early 1990s were a truly unique and interesting time in popular music. After the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, major labels were scrambling to find the “next big thing” in  flash, and they began courting smaller, more abrasive and experimental bands that never would have been considered for radio play just a year before.

This had an unintended effect for the major labels. By catering so strongly to smaller bands and labels, it gave independent music a stronger voice than it had ever seen before. Alternative culture had been thrust into the mainstream.

All of a sudden, weird, trippy records like Sonic Youth’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star were on the Billboard charts beside pop acts like  Boyz II Men. Bizarre songs like The Flaming Lips’ “She Don’t Use Jelly” were suddently considered hit singles in a way that never would have been commercial viable before Nirvana came along.

Not that every alt-rock band at the time was brilliant, but the beauty of the time was seeing underground rock move into a more prominent place in American culture.

Which leads me to Pavement and their phenomenal 1994 release Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. The album wasn’t as commercially successful as other alt-rock records of the period (though it did reach the top 20 in the UK), but in my mind, it’s possibly the finest album of the 1990s.

While Pavement’s first full-length Slanted and Enchanted was a very low-fi record, Crooked Rain was a diferent story. It adopted a slightly more polished sound, one that while not quite a fit for mainstream radio, turned down the abrasively low quality production values and fuzzy guitars, replacing them with catchy melodies, reserved rhythms and lazily strummed chords that could come right out of a jam band. The whole album oozes slacker chic.

Take the album’s first single “Cut Your Hair” for example: Beginning with Stephen Malkmus’s falsetto “ooh ooh oohs,” the song bleads into its loose, jam-inspired verse as Malkmus’s lyrics attack the image-conscious music industry. “You can keep your fancy record deals and stylists,” Malkmus seems to say, “We don’t care about any of that.”

Even the song’s guitar solo feels effortlessly perfect, as Scott Kannberg’s guitar shifts quickly around the same five or six notes. It’s a perfectly Generation X moment: brilliant, simplistic and never too thought-out.

The group’s next single, “Gold Soundz” might be one of my favorite songs of all time. The whole song feels like the soundtrack to a perfectly lazy summer day. Malkmus and Kannberg’s guitars intertwine seamlessly, noodling around in alternate tunings, creating the perfect mix of off-the-cuff originality and planned genius.

The rest of the record is full of memorably off-kilter selections, from the slow country rock of “Range Life” to the Dave Brubeck-inspired instrumental “5-4=Unity.”

It may not have been the most popular album of the mid ‘90s, but it encapsulated the era better than any other managed to.

Classic or catastrophe: classic.


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