Monday, April 21, 2008

Primer: Pavement Part 3- Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: L.A.'s Desert Origins

I don't listen to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain anymore. Oh, sure, I do bust it out from time to time and play it, but I'm rarely actively listening to it. It goes in one ear and comes out the other and I can subconsciously feel the changes and the different songs, but the album has become so ingrained in my psyche that I take it for granted.

If you were going to play a Pavement album to try to get someone into the band, Crooked Rain would be it. Sure, Brighten The Corners is a lot more mellow and easy going, but it's also not as good as Crooked Rain. Rather, this album is the sound of Pavement forming into a true band that is both inventive and tips its hat to forefathers at the same time. Along with concurrent releases by, say, Sebadoh, the album also helped cement the mid 90s indie rock sound of clean guitars juxtaposed with distorted ones, and a wide ranging sound that draws inspiration from 70s punk rock, 80s hardcore, 80s indie rock, and classic rock.

'Silence Kid', often erroneously titled 'Silence Kit', opens the album with the band tuning up before the memorable rush of cowbell-driven-guitars kicks in. This really is one of those songs that you never get sick of and the difference between it and even the band's last release, the Watery, Domestic EP is huge. Much happened in Pavement land between these times, though: original drummer and producer Gary Young quit the band (or was fired, depending on who you ask) and was replaced by both friend-of-the-band Steve West and ancillary backup musician/road manager Bob Nastonovich, the latter of whom often had to keep time on a mini drum kit during concerts when Young became too drunk or antic happy to function. Steve West has a much more classically oriented full rock sound, fitting these songs like a glove; at the same time, the songs themselves just sound bigger and more cooked up, rather than the brilliant scribbles of Slanted & Enchanted. Scott Kannberg aka Spiral Stairs also makes more of a noticeable contribution, particularly with his first lead vocal appearance on 'Hit The Plane Down', which is one of those love-it-or-hate-it songs. Personally I don't think it fits the album at all, but I'm too used to it being there to really want to get rid of it.

While I should say up front that Crooked Rain is not my favorite Pavement album, it absolutely has some fantastic songs. 'Stop Breathin'' is the first instance on record of Malkmus's guitar ambitions which would later see fruition on his solo albums, a twirling, melancholic, and downright pretty solo showcase that achieves liftoff in its second half. 'Cut Your Hair' and 'Gold Soundz' being the most well known of the album's songs, you might think they have nothing to offer other than a hook to get mainstream America to buy Crooked Rain. Not so. If you haven't heard these songs in awhile, or just remember them as boring and accessible, give them another spin: the irresistable "ooh ooh ohh ohh ohh" chorus of 'Cut Your Hair' just gets better with age, while the rich melodies and skewed lyrics of 'Gold Soundz' make for great hanging-with-friends-in-the-Spring-or-Summer music. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention 'Heaven Is A Truck', which is the album's hidden gem. It also happens to be one of Malkmus's tenderest and most poetic songs, and apparently something of a favorite of his--seeing him perform it, solo and acoustic, at the Pitchfork festival last year was like watching an author do a reading of what they consider one of their best works.

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was released in a deluxe edition reissue a few years ago. Much like the Slanted & Enchanted reissue, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: L.A.'s Desert Origins adds a disc and a half of bonus material, most of which is unavailable elsewhere. While it's nowhere near as good as the first reissue's bonus material, it's still the version to buy. The first disc's extra stuff mostly amounts to B-sides, all of which you'll listen to a few times and forget about. 'Coolin' By Sound' would have made a better choice for the album as a Spiral Stairs song instead of 'Hit The Plane Down', though, and 'Strings of Nashville' is a gorgeous and quiet ballad that may take you off guard. Disc two is where the money is at: a handful of songs from the scrapped sessions the band did with Gary Young, a host of outtakes and song sketches, and a Peel session to cap it all off. Tracks 2 through 8 were from the aforementioned Young session and reveal what the album might have turned out like with Young still in the band and producing. They simply don't sound right, and while that may be a "I'm too used to the album as it would turn out" thing, 'Range Life', 'Stop Breathin'', and 'Ell Ess Two' (later renamed 'Elevate Me Later') sound rushed and lightweight in any context.

What will most please fans is the remainder of the disc, which has some great unreleased material and plays like a mini-album. Along with a piano heavy alternate mix of 'Heaven Is A Truck' and early versions of songs that would turn up on Wowee Zowee, we get a glimpse into the Pavement songwriting playbook with the sketches like 'Rug Rat' and 'Dark Ages.' I find these fascinating because I love Malkmus's tossed off songs and lyrical ad-libs, but everyone else's mileage will vary. After the palette cleansing, sad, and appropriately titled 'Instrumental', the Peel session closes the disc with 'Brink of the Clouds' and 'Tartar Martyr', equally good Malkmus and Spiral Stairs unreleased songs; an early version of 'Pueblo'; and 'The Sutcliffe Catering Song' which will show up on the Wowee Zowee deluxe edition titled 'Easily Fooled.' Anyway, it's a nice cap to the reissue, and every bit as "wow, I've never heard these before and they're awesome!!" as the Peel sessions from Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe.

But I digress. It's easy for me to recommend this album to anyone because it's the one that even people who don't really like Pavement can enjoy. If you're looking to expand your horizons, or go back in time to when indie rock was the alternative to alternative rock, then Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is the album for you.

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