Lies and Betrayals, No More
Pavement at the Fillmore, September 21, 1997
Review and overview by David Kim
Has Pavement sold out? Well, their shows have been for the past few years now. I caught them at the Fillmore last night (sold out) which makes it their fourth show in San Franscisco this year: first, small club gigs at the Kilowatt and the Bottom of the Hill (both sold out in less than an hour), and then a couple bigger shows at the Warfield and the Fillmore (ostensibly, to make accessible their live sound to the masses). All of them, yup, you guessed it, sold out.
Sold out, sell outs, souled out, school's out. Pavement est rad. Blah, blah, blah. Last night's show was the best Pavement show I've seen yet... and that's well, the sixth time I've seen them. I've seen the band open and I've seen them close. In fact, I've seen them from afar 1 and I've seen them close. Last night, they played to 2,000+ die-hard fans, college music enthusiasts and '60's burn-outs with nothing better to do than show up at every Bill Graham Presents event (giveaway signs: long hair, bandannas, lots of denim...). And while my indie sensibility informed me that I should be hating the show (and hating myself for dishing out $16.50 for a band that once, twice, put me on their guest list), I loved it.
They played some oldies: "Loretta's Scars" and "Debris Slide"-I never knew the melodies for both songs were so similar until I heard "Debris Slide" in an almost unrecognizable form due to the blisteringly sonic noise 4 SM and company were creating. This subsequently caused me to hum the chorus in my head just to follow along and I realized I was humming "Loretta's Scars" in the stead of "Debris Slide." Try it yourself. Loret-TA's SCARS! De-BRIS SLIDE! Anyway, it was an epiphany to me.
The boys did lovely renditions of the singles: "Cut Your Hair," "Gold Soundz," "Stereo"... They played album gems: "Starlings of the Slipstream" (ah-woo!), "Blue Hawaiian," "Range Life," "El Ess Two" and some tracks off Wowee Zowee that I forget but they really outdid themselves when they performed (last encore, final note) the Velvets' "What Goes On." 2 Personally, it was a very pure and beautiful moment. I felt as if Pavement were singing directly to me 3. It was surprising how many people had no idea what song they were playing (admittedly, it was a little hard to recognize behind the sonic noise 4) and even more shocking/disappointing/what-the-fuck-is-going-on-ing when people started to herd themselves out upon not having a song to sing along to. Nevertheless, it fazed me little. I really thought-I know this sounds corny-Pavement was able to purge some demons from the past (namely, the Velvet Underground comparisons), by confronting them head-on.
I guess I've always liked Pavement's older stuff. And I'm not saying this out of any easy "superior/more-alternative-than-thou" posturing. I genuinely prefer SM's Lou Reed and Mark E. Smith to the Buddy Holly/Michael Stipe love-child stuff 5. But when Pavement launched into the classic VU tune, that's when I came to understand what exactly they were trying to do (besides obligatory VU-covering. See footnote 3). Like Jon Spencer, Bob Pollard and a whole other slew of indie demigods, Steve Malkmus is clearly informed by music's history. He uses it as a kind of grab bag of notes, riffs and melodies. But what sets him (and his band) apart is how he pieces it back together, never bordering on parody (as has been accused of Jon Spence Blues Explosion), nor falling into a kind of drunken, frat-boyish sincerity (see Bob "Windmill" 6 Pollard)... Pavement speaks from and to a musical timeline, but creates new sounds by showing all their stitches and seams.
Sloppiness and detached stage manner aren't just affectations. They're the only way SM, Spiral Stairs, Monsieur Ibold, Bob N., and SW can express themselves; at once, paying homage to their musical predecessors (without aping them), but also staking a claim in rock-and-roll history for themselves.
Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth has said that she likes to watch bands fall apart when they play. Not exactly the sort of thing most paying customers want to see. Most paying customers want to see album-quality versions of popular album tracks... perhaps a little witty banter thrown in between songs and gratuitous shout-outs to the city they're playing in ("Worcester, Mass, are you ready to rock?!!"). Now I'm not sure which party's flag I pledge my allegiance to... I certainly don't pay good money to see a band make a mockery of their music 7, nor do I want to see what might as well be the lip-sync finals on Star Search.
What Pavement seems to do is fall apart and put themselves back together. They're not out there to put the best show on earth-they're there to play music. Their brand of sloppiness isn't this kind of staged sloppiness where the singer and bassist are falling over each other, dropping their guitars and forgetting lyrics. As Malkmus himself claims, I think, earnestly, "I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying!!!"
Pavement has sort of come full circle back to the roots of alternative music-they've fought through the gritty traffic of Sonic Youth street, spent long, monotonous nights on Can lane and jangled along R.E.M. highway, to end up right where they started: digging deep into The Velvet Underground.
While Lou Reed and company were near morbidly obsessed with drugs, transvestites and Lady Godiva, Pavement stays with the stuff they know best: an academic's appreciation of wordplay, apathy fueled by genuine effort, fruit covered nails, eee-lectricity and lust. But what remains similar between the two bands seems to be a quest for the truth through sonic experimentation. There is a real sense of going somewhere when you listen to both these bands. Compare the way, say, the Wedding Present 8 or Superchunk make you feel and the way Pavement makes you feel. God bless Mr. Gedge and Mac, but I approach their music the way I approach a warm, quilted blanket. It's the same as it ever was: it's a rockin', it's a janglin'... it's all terribly comfortable indie rock. Pavement's like hanging out with your unpredictable best friend. Is he particularly hard-core? No. Does he record acoustic songs in his bedroom on his beat-up four-track? Hardly. Does he want to smoke up and sit around watching Speed Racer reruns? No... well, okay, maybe. Is he politically active? Hell, I'd be surprised if he was registered to vote. He's hard to pin down is what he is. He likes country, he likes jazz, he likes Iggy Pop, he likes the Shangri-La's 9 . He likes both Itchy and Scratchy.
The only thing Pavement even vaguely resembles is the Velvet Underground. Not only will hundreds of (mostly bad) bands start up after picking up their records, like VU, they play both self-consciously (with respect to the aforementioned musical timeline) and passionately: unafraid to disappoint, but also unafraid to please.
That's what makes their music so damn crackling.
1. Approximately 20,000 backwards caps far. What is it with jocks and music festivals? To be discussed in next week's table top discussion. Return to text
2. Covering a Velvet Underground song is practically a rite of passage for [insert generic alternative band seeking credibility here]. Witness R.E.M., "Pale Blue Eyes." Nirvana, "Here She Comes Now." Yo La Tengo, "I'm Set Free." Billy Idol, "Heroin" (!). Lots of them polish up the songs, play them clean and produced. Pavement's unafraid to be sloppy. The effect of which is that they remain more faithful to the sound and spirit of the original. But what is uniquely Pavement is their style. Miles and miles. So much style that it's wasted. Return to text
3. That warm and fuzzy feeling went away the next morning when I discovered that Pavement had played the same tune on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic- Damn that Chris Douridas! Return to text
4. Read above description of "Debris Slide." Return to text
5. I'm picturing a kind of bald, white Urkel (from Family Matters). An image that ain't worth bearing for longer than 15 seconds. Return to text
6. A rock and roll move, along with karate kicks and guitar bashing, initiated by the Who and later popularized by mid-80's L.A. hair bands. Return to text
7. There are bands that I have seen that purposefully fuck up to up their indie cred by putting Gordon's words in action (Sebadoh comes to mind) but it all seems very contrived in the grand scheme of things, even it really is just an "off-night". There isn't any remorse or regret, there's just a kind of resigned smugness: it's like the perpetual masturbator who claims he chooses the single life. Return to text
8. Who, by the way, covered Pavement's first popular single, "Box Elder". Return to text
9. Hip hop is sort of foreign to him, since he's undeniably white. But there's a similar sensibility going on-borrowing stuff he likes on other records. It's just that the distortion and reinvention take different forms: he's busy twisting knobs and slapping Moogs, instead of scratching and sampling. Return to text
Many thanks to the official Pavement site for use of the picture
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