Dressed for Success: Pavement’s ‘Slanted & Enchanted’ Turns 25
The group that took the stage on Tuesday, August 21, 1990, at a small New York club called the Pyramid on Avenue A looked a little like a TV casting director’s idea of an indie band. The two boys in front playing guitar were tall and lean — one almost comically so — with long, straight surfer-boy hair. The drummer was part man, part Muppet, with a scruffy beard and scruffy clothes. His elbows flew as he played, and in between songs — or sometimes during them — he was up off his stool, off the stage even, trying to coax the crowd into buying him a drink.
The ramshackle racket they made upended any sense of order, with sha-la-las stuck on top of industrial clatter, random guitar blurts that resolved into catchy melodies and an introverted swagger that put muscle inside mope rock. Near the end of the set, someone — maybe it was the third guitarist, who took the place of a bassist, or the second drummer — ran up to the boys in front and pulled their hair, which came off. They were wearing wigs. Without them, they seemed clean cut, as suited to a dorm room as an Avenue A stage. So, maybe not a casting director’s idea of an indie band. Maybe just an indie band with a sense of humor, or a prankster’s love of disguise, or both.
This was Pavement’s first New York show. The band had barely played live before; this was perhaps their sixth performance. It was sloppy and hilarious. You would not have walked away knowing that this would turn out to be one of the greatest bands of the ‘90s; hell, you wouldn’t have been confident they’d still even be a band a month later. But from 1989 to 1999, Pavement worked miracle after miracle: five albums of songs that snarled or swooned or both, along with a collection of early tracks and a steady stream essential extras.
Their music was cryptic and direct at the same time. Pavement made noise sweet the way the Ramones had made anger funny, and glammed up the art-pocalypse of Sonic Youth the way the Rolling Stones had rewired the blues and R&B they worshipped. In the process, they restored romanticism to an indie-rock world that had fixated on the sound of chaos and failure, much the way that R.E.M. had returned melody to the post-punk underground at the start of the ‘80s.
At the start, Pavement was more an idea than a band. The first Pavement songs arrived crammed onto a seven-inch vinyl EP, Slay Tracks (1933 – 1967), credited to S.M. and Spiral Stairs. Who they were was a mystery, as was the memorial indicated by the title. Was the music new or archival? And what were these instruments they were credited with playing: hambone axe, damaged gutterpulse, synth #38?
S.M. was Stephen Malkmus. Spiral Stairs was Scott Kannberg. They’d grown up in Stockton, California, attended college on different sides of the country, made Slay Tracks for $1,000 back in Stockton before Malkmus left for a trip abroad after graduation. There was no plan, no practice, no band. Just a collection of chattering guitar riffs pushed along by more guitar fuzz and occasional drum thumps. On top of this, Malkmus and Kanberg added all sorts of static, noise and electric doodles, like friends trading jokes, or buying each other drinks on a night out, or playing each other songs that bring them joy.
You could hear bits of what had come before — the art-punk pummel of the Fall and the guitar-splatter tricks of the Swell Maps — but this was a music of pure freedom, unconstrained by any responsibility or history. It did not reach into the past or into the future — there was no horizon of expectations beyond finishing the session before that trip abroad, so it wasn’t made to be played live or to be followed up. It lived in the moment, and heard today it still does, a kind of campfire music that gathers up punk ideas — as well as the outsider ideas that led to punk and those it inspired — and turns them into a singalong.
Two more EPs followed, the idea gradually transforming into an actual band, though Malkmus and Kannberg continued to live on opposite sides of the country. Around Christmas of 1990, four months after that New York show, Malkmus flew back to Stockton and the two reconvened at the studio of their Muppet-man drummer, Gary Young, in his run-down house, surrounded by dogs and pot smoke.
There, over the course of seventeen days, they recorded their debut album, Slanted & Enchanted. True to the mystery and anti-image Pavement had cultivated from the beginning, the album would circulate on cassette tape for months and months before its release on April 20, 1992, as a sort-of bootleg, a slow-moving album leak a decade before the era of file-sharing.
Slow-moving, but far-reaching. As before, everything seemed to take shape around Malkmus and Kannberg’s guitars as they played them, but now the shapes were more glorious and solid. Tricks and throwaways and shouts — glorious tricks and throwaways and shouts — had given way to actual songs, with lyrics, the occasional chorus, even backing vocals. The songs were short — only one longer than three minutes and thirty seconds — but they felt epic. “No Life Singed Her” was barely two minutes, but it was two minutes of constantly peaking jet-flame guitar. “Trigger Cut” was built around drums crashes and buzzy guitars that tumbled like loaded dice; “Zürich is Stained” was little more than two guitars having a mournful breakup talk, one strumming its way out the door, the other sliding around in soft sobs; each ended with a “sha-la-la,” and each led to a quick bit of melodic free association that seemed to unfold backwards or sideways. Anything was possible.
Hearing it all on cassette before the public release was like being let in on a world-changing secret that was blindingly obvious: noise and tune could power each other endlessly, like kids playing leap frog until the sun went down. Hardly a new idea. But this is what it must have felt like when David Bowie put on lipstick the first time: anyone can work this transformation; no one else will do it with this much style, grace and mystical power.
The songs on Slanted & Enchanted were explorations, a map of spaces both external and internal. “Pavement was originally a pathetic effort by us to do something to escape the terminal boredom we were experiencing in Stockton,” Malkmus told Melody Maker in 1992. He felt Stockton — an agriculture town ninety minutes east of San Francisco and ninety minutes south of Sacramento, located on the waterways that form California’s inland river delta — was an empty place. He wanted to convey that in Pavement’s music. The escape was there from the start, perhaps so much so that the emptiness was not. Even the most skeletal of Pavement’s early tracks feel crammed with energy; even the saddest songs on Slanted & Enchanted bristle with invention.
Others picked up on the escape routes Pavement mapped out, though they all would have found them on their own. You couldn’t say Sebadoh, Guided by Voices, Built to Spill, Archers of Loaf or Weezer actually sounded like Pavement (well, maybe Archers of Loaf, sometimes), yet there were moments when what they accomplished wouldn’t have seemed possible without Pavement.
As for Pavement themselves, they alternated albums of discovery with collections of more tightly constructed songs, almost as though there was a master plan. There wasn’t. Their decade drew to a close with Terror Twilight in 1999, an underrated album that took months, not weeks, to record, and which found them fitting together songs out of parts. In a sense, they were were back to the bits-and-pieces style Malkmus and Kannberg had started with, but with fewer jokes and happy accidents. And so they stopped.
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