Indie rock, by a large margin, is my favorite genre of music. What’s so amazing about it is the freedom it gives to artists, in a musical sense; while this comes at the expense of potential mainstream popularity, the music that is created can give bands a legacy and cult-like fan base that is not seen in music anymore.
The Smiths, Radiohead, The Strokes, and Sonic Youth are just a few bands that fit this description. But when looking at the genre of indie rock, there is one band that has created an indisputable legacy; one which has put them as one of the best: Pavement.
“Well, show me, A word that rhymes with Pavement/ And I won’t kill your parents, And roast them on a spit/ And a-don’t you try to etch it, Or permanently sketch it/ Or you’re gonna catch a bad bad cold”
These words, from a literal standpoint, make no sense; but that’s the beauty of music — it doesn’t have to. Despite the oddity and forcefulness of these words coming together in the song, “Harness Your Hopes”, it’s this exact method that has gone on to define Pavement.
Going back to the “musical freedom” I mentioned before, Pavement is the best example of what I meant. If you thought the lyrics I shared were bizarre, I can assure you that they have written something even weirder.
The band has made its legacy off of being different, but what makes it impressive is that the band never adjusted for anyone, even when on the verge of mainstream success. Call it crazy or stupid, but it leaves us with a band that played and created music for the best reason: a love of music.
Before I go any further into the band, seeing if they are actually the greatest indie rock act ever, here are my “StevensNotes” (don’t worry, I hate myself too) on the band, Pavement:
Pavement formed in Stockton, California, in 1989 by Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg
Their first album, Slanted and Enchanted, was released in 1992. Despite it being the band’s first album, it is often considered the strongest; to this day is one of the most important albums within the indie rock.
In 1994, the band released its second album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Featuring the single, “Cut Your Hair”, this was the band’s closest chance at breaking into the mainstream. For reasons I’ll discuss later, it never happened.
Pavement followed Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain with their 1995 effort, Wowee Zowee. This still divides fans due to its shift away (at times) from the band’s earlier works.
The band’s change in direction didn’t stop with their fourth album, Brighten The Corners, in 1997. Despite the band’s lyrics remaining in the same flamboyant manner they had previously been, the band’s “sound” went into a much calmer state.
In 1999, Pavement released its final album, Terror Twilight. By the time the tour to promote the album had begun, tensions had already risen to a boiling point.
After claiming the band was going on hiatus in 1999, they broke up the following year.
Following a large demand for a reunion tour, Pavement reunited in 2010. This was done to promote their best hits album, Quarantine the Past: The Best of Pavement.
It is also expected that the band will reunite again in 2019 to celebrate their 30th anniversary.
I could spend the next 500 words telling you that Pavement was so great, but that isn’t cool. Allow me to explain what made the band so unique and special.
First, let’s look at lyrics. Whether you like it or you don’t, lyrics are the driving force in a song. You could be the greatest guitarist ever, but most people don’t connect with riffs. It’s the words, the art of songwriting, that alone can make or break a song, or even in more extreme cases, a band.
People want to connect with the songwriter, like the song they’re listening to was written for just them. Pavement doesn’t do that at all. What Stephen Malkmus did was create lyrics that make you think.
Thinking about what the hell they mean. It’s may sound like I’m insulting the band, but on the contrary, I love it. Let’s break down the following set of lines from the same song I mentioned before, “Harness Your Hopes”:
“And I’m asking you to hold me, Just like the morning paper/ Pinched between your pointer, Your index and your thumb.”
So what we’re getting is Malkmus, asking who I assume is a woman, to hold him like a morning newspaper. However, to only use her pointer and index finger, which is the exact same finger, and her thumb. This isn’t even how anyone holds a newspaper; it doesn’t make any sense, but it remains one of my favorite lines, ever.
I could take almost any set of lyrics from a Pavement song, break it down, and try to make sense of it. That would only lead me to ask the same question every time: what the fuck am I doing? But this defines the band and I love it.
Next, let’s evaluate the band’s mentality. Pavement is like when you know you can study for a test and then get a superb grade, but you’d rather watch Netflix until 5 am. The band never wanted to be the greatest, but in a way that made them great.
In one of the more famous music video reviews from the iconic 90s show, Beavis and Butthead, they are listening to Pavement’s “Range Life”. They both make fun of the band, telling them to “try harder.” In a way, it was a slightly accurate complaint; Pavement dragged themselves through the ’90s. Oddly, I think it gave them a sense of humbleness that made them so cool.
As best said by Malkmus, “We’re not on a desperate mission to write chart compatible stuff.” He knew the band’s limits, and even his own, “I don’t even think my voice is really good.”
In a world now where any person with an ounce of fame thinks they’re the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, it’s refreshing to see this. Perhaps, in an even more humorous way, everyone continues to admire the band despite the constant down talks of themselves.
Finally, we have to talk about the most important part of any musical group: the music. You may say, “Well duh, no shit Steven”, but let me explain what I mean. If I were to describe the actual music of Pavement, it would be “a beautiful mess.” The band is able to go from some jazzy and calm to hectic and loud. Like a toddler with a crayon, you never know where the band will go next; by the end, it’s something to appreciate.
Look at the song, “Stereo”, it gives you this quiet beginning verse, but you can feel it building up into something. Before you know it, the chorus knocks you down with its guitar shredding madness, but before you’re able to adjust, you’re right back where you started.
The spectrum the Pavement covers is amazing; few bands can take you from country to alternative in a career, let alone on one album. Pavement is just fun to listen to, something that is always appreciated by me.
The most unfortunate part of the group, aside from ever breaking up, is the lack of recognition they’ve received. I’ve listened to my fair share of music in my life, and few bands make me want to come back to listen like Pavement.
But the band’s inconsistencies pushed them away from the mainstream of music. It’s understandable. Radio rock has to be safe, people like the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-chorus format; if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. It has worked to this day, imagine hearing a band that a lot of times never has a chorus in their songs? It’s odd and different for sure.
But I believe Pavement’s failure to break into the mainstream may have been the best thing for them.
Many bands, want to be legendary. It’s understandable; you get money, fame, and power, it’s hard to not aspire to it. So bands change their sound, attempting to become something most of them are not. Pavement made an entire career of doing whatever they wanted and they’ve become legends because of it.
Let’s not act like this is just my opinion though, as I mentioned, Pavement had and still have an amazing following. WatchMojo named them the greatest indie act ever and Robert Christgau, a famous essayist, named Pavement, “the finest rock band of the ’90s.” The praise of the band is not limited to just the two; look through the genre and you’ll find admiration for them.
So to answer the question: are Pavement the greatest indie rock band ever? I don’t know. That’s another beauty of music; it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, it’s all about how music feels to you. I’m just a nerdy teenager who likes music from the 90s a little too much. But that’s okay, I like sharing with others.
Oh, and enclavement rhymes with pavement.
You can follow Steven on Twitter @Steven_Keehner