Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Cracking About Pavement

“I don’t understand what they mean/And I could really give a fuck.” There it is, the explanation for my dislike of Pavement, smack dab in the middle of the third verse of their second most likeable song.

Pavement came along as the kings of reflexive irony at a time when that shit was just all over the place. You couldn’t tell what anybody listening to alternative rock was really thinking about anything, because there were so many layers of “This is so cool it’s meaningless because it acts like it means something which means nothing so it’s sincerely empty because it looks like it should be cool.”

Start with the attitude that meaning could be no more and no less important than pitch or rhythm. That’s what drove me crazy about Pavement. They sold and sold, they were lauded by every rock critic under the age of 30 back in 1994 (and a lot of them older, too), but they stood in stark opposition to everything I loved about music. I could handle irony as a method of expression, but irony as a preventative measure to avoid reaching a conclusion? This was something I couldn’t stomach.

And then, that song about the haircut came on the radio every hour or so. This was back in the day when I listened to the radio because I hadn’t yet encountered a CD player for my car, and it was back in the day when the Point, St. Louis’s first alternative rock station (which at the time was so scared of our town’s predeliction for classic rock that it refused to allow Vintage Vinyl to pay to welcome them as an alternative rock station) hadn’t yet squeezed its playlist into a narrow range of testosterone rage songs. Somewhere about the 58th or 59th time I heard it, I finally understood how brilliant it was to have a catchy sing-along about a pretty nice haircut. I’ve since mostly forgotten how brilliant that was, but I did love it for a few months there.

I would always give Pavement, and eventually singer Stephen Malkmus’ solo projects, a chance to affect me, but they never did. Until the other day, when I suddenly understood not the brilliance, but the beauty, at least, of “Range Life,” a song from Pavement’s breakthrough LP, “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.”

I’m saying it’s their second most likeable song because I haven’t enjoyed it nearly as long or as often as I did that haircut number. But, I just played it three times in a row, and it keeps rattling away in my brain as I type, keeping my thoughts as lilting as the bass-and-drums 2/4 backbeat that throbs its way throughout the record. Above that alt-country 101 rhythm track are layers of guitar and piano which sort of go along with the program, and sort of don’t. The piano is probably most closely aligned with the bass, tinkling away and occasionally coming to the forefront for a proper turnaround emphasis. But one guitar is strumming counter to the beats, and the other is playing a staccato melody with pitches just out of the key of the song. Strangely, it’s all gorgeous. I think I was so used to records being out of tune back in the early 90s that I missed the fact that this was done on purpose and to lovely effect.

Or, perhaps, I was still put off by Malkmus, who is off pitch because he simply can’t carry a tune very far away from a few notes in the middle of his range. In “Range Life” he mumbles at the bottom end of his register, and whimpers at the top. And he sings about skateboarding, and being off-stage while on tour, and throws in some elliptical comments about more well known bands than his own. The third verse finds him in combat with oddball sounds jumping out of the mix, until his vocal virtually disappears after the quote from the top of this page.

I don’t know much about skateboarding. I stood on one once, and jumped off fast when I realized that sucker was gonna move without me knowing how to control it. But, I know what I imagine it feels like to soar around on one of those things, to be in motion without a care in the world, without any thoughts of meaning beyond the moment. And, that’s what this song feels like, right down to the inevitable realization that something out there is going to make you stop and rejoin the rest of humanity. “Range Life” which purports to be about what? moving to a home on the range, could also be heard as “I want to arrange life,” which at least hints that you want things to be under your own control. This song feels like that, like everything is in the place the band wants it to be, until, slowly but surely, control ebbs away.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not gonna run right out and buy Pavement albums or something. I’m still awfully suspicious of these guys. But, at least for this one song, they managed to achieve a unity of expression that’s not as detached from life itself as I had thought they wanted to be. That’s a nice enough discovery to make eleven years later.


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