The Over/Under: Pavement


Corey duBrowa’s Over/Under entries on Radiohead and Elliott Smith prompted insightful reader comments such as “This list fails,” “[Given] the fact Smith’s gone, this seems disgraceful” and “Where’s the html tag for sarcasm?” DuBrowa once wrote a lengthy Seattle Weekly essay lauding Pavement’s 1992 debut LP, Slanted And Enchanted, which stands among the finest releases of the ‘90s and established Pavement as one of the definitive voices of its era. Listed here are his takes on the band’s most overrated work and its satchel of underrated gems, as well as a preemptive plea to fellow Portlander Stephen Malkmus to call him sometime for a Spanish coffee at Huber’s. The first one’s on us, dude.

:: The Five Most Overrated Pavement Songs
1. “Here” (1992)

Back when Pavement was still little more than a two-person tape-splicing party focused on divining the previously unexplored terrain between the Fall, Swell Maps and ‘70s krautrock, Stockton, Calif., homeboys Stephen “S.M.” Malkmus and Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg waged war on the music industry by burying their sloppily assembled and unapologetically Anglophilic cut-and-paste melodies under sedimentary layers of static and tape hiss. Slanted And Enchanted neatly captured the “preppy scumrock” aesthetic of the era; filed into the cracks somewhere between the faux sturm and fake drang were songs like “Here,” little mellow jazz docents that came on like Low b-sides, taken out for a ride in the country and ditched among the barnyard skeletons and rusted-out jalopies up on blocks. Sometime shortly thereafter, I saw alt-country artist Richard Buckner cover “Here” and thought his version a vast improvement on the original, which leads me to believe that while the Cult of Pavement holds this tune close to its heart, a different arrangement might have suited it better.

2. “Cut Your Hair” (1994)
Yeah, it’s Pavement’s biggest “near-miss” and probably the only song recognizable to anyone outside of the band’s fanbase. Its diary-like story of Everyband—from the advert claiming “chops a must, no big hair” to its conclusion, staring down the barrel of something as ambitious/anti-slack as “attention and fame/career, career!”—is a good barometer for Pavement’s then-struggle to accept the possibility of success on anyone’s terms but its own. (It’s not for nothing that the group penned a poison-tipped screed called “Fame Throwa.”) Crooked Rain Crooked Rain eventually sold half a million copies; by way of extension/mathematical logic, “Cut Your Hair” served as the gateway to such numbers and is overrated as a result. And that probably makes me a snob.

3. “Range Life” (1994)
By definition, two things will date your band/song faster than any other. One is a sound associated with a very specific time and place in history. (Hello, Thompson Twins; how do you do, Duran Duran?) The other are lyrics landlocked in a similar zone of specificity. (Anyone broken out their copy of Prince’s “Ronnie, Talk To Russia” lately?) With “Range Life,” Pavement fell prey to the latter by being dead on right about the targets in question: namely, grunge-era mainstays Smashing Pumpkins (“Nature kids/They don’t have no function”) and Stone Temple Pilots (“Elegant bachelors/They’re foxy to me/Are they foxy to you?”), the posers of their generation. As it happens, both bands and their kitchen-sink dramas (and ill-conceived reunion tours) have rendered them irrelevant in ways that Pavement will never remotely approach. But “Range Life” and its tired-sounding country-rock trappings never really transcend the limits of the song’s subject matter, making it something of a novelty item within the Pavement catalog. Wan And Withdrawn?

4. “Shady Lane” (1997)
Malkmus once told me, “The Pavement guys could tell you that I had a more controlling mentality in the early days. We used to just ram songs through. Around the time of Crooked Rain and (1995’s) Wowee Zowee, there was no real group dynamic, per se; it was just, ‘This is a song, here’s how it goes, and it’s gonna be good.’” Trouser Press must’ve also sniffed this out, going one step further by calling Crooked Rain “a damn fine case for dictatorship.” The simple reality is that the longer Pavement continued, the more pressure Malkmus must have felt to get his four fellow fireants in a box and make magic, when all were involved in various side projects and life/family endeavors. “Shady Lane” was the single from 1997’s Brighten The Corners, which found the playful experimentation of Wowee Zowee mostly discarded in favor of producer Mitch Easter’s more focused, pop-leaning orientation. I found it to be Pavement’s first boring record, although the “Shady Lane” b-side (“Wanna Mess You Around”) is a hidden Pavement gem that could probably qualify as number six on the underrated list below. But taken in sum: underwhelming.

5. “Major Leagues” (1999)
When Pavement’s swan song, Terror Twilight, came out in 1999, I reacted more negatively in a MAGNET review than I feel about the album today: “Is it really so hard to rock out for a minute without cross-referencing every other lick for the obscurants in the house? The cleverness is starting to envelop these guys like a noose around the neck.” (To which one reader replied, “It seems duBrowa cannot accept the inevitable evolution: Just because Pavement isn’t a new band doesn’t mean the quality of its music has declined. Maybe he should try to be less concerned with being cool and on the cutting edge than performing his job as an objective listener.” Some things never change, I guess.) On Pavement’s final tour in support of the record (a moment captured for posterity on the Slow Century DVD), Malkmus directs the audience’s attention to a pair of handcuffs dangling from his mic and explains wearily that the prop symbolizes “what it’s like to be in a band.” Clearly Malkmus had other things on his mind by then (a solo career right over the horizon), and “Major Leagues” (the single from Terror Twilight) features a lovely melody, a typically inscrutable lyric examining the dissolution of relationships both personal (“You kiss like a rock/But you know I need it, anyway”) and professional (“Angle for the ringside seats/When they fall, don’t blame me”). Too Eagles for my liking, but a good indicator of what lay ahead for Malkmus just over the next creative hill.

:: The Five Most Underrated Pavement Songs
1. “Debris Slide” (1990)

I’m sure this pick will out me as a Luddite-leaning Pavement elitist, given that it’s taken from one of the band’s earliest EPs, the ridiculously influential Perfect Sound Forever. It was recorded in two days over Christmas break 1989 for chump change, back when Malkmus and Kannberg were essentially a college-rock art project with studio owner/hippie burnout Gary Young serving as “just push record”/beats-for-hire manservant. With its barely tuned guitars, Basement Tapes white-noise aesthetic and abstruse lyrical willfulness, “Debris Slide” treated early listeners to all of S.M. and Spiral Stairs’ influences in one tidy, perfectly distilled package: the Fall’s noisy inscrutability, the Pixies’ noisy melodicism (buried within the killer “ba ba ba da ba” chorus), Sonic Youth’s love of noisily offputting instrumental constructs. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s well worth the effort. If you pay close attention, you can see that other musicians were listening, too, given that Blur’s “Song 2” (e.g., “That Woo-Hoo song”) is almost directly descended from the lunging, falling-forward-in-a-hurry sound first heard here, a mere seven years earlier.

2. “Perfume-V” (1992)
If you’re picking from among the embarrassment of riches that comprises Slanted And Enchanted, finding something “underrated” is actually a heavy-duty critical task: “Trigger Cut” and “Summer Babe” are both terrific pop songs masquerading as “alternative” (it’s the light dusting of lo-fi grime that seals the deal on Malkmus’ aural slight-of-hand) but have been heralded to the point of redundancy over the years. So it falls to a track like “Perfume-V” to leap to the front of the line. With Malkmus singing through his Jonny Greenwood-like curtain of hair and playing the living daylights out of whatever vintage Jazzmaster he was shredding to bits at the time, “Perfume-V” is two minutes of Lou Reed in a blender, spun violently on the “high” setting, and served as bloody as the contents of Dan Aykroyd’s Super Bass-o-Matic.

3. “Frontwards” (1992)
In the wake of its debut, Pavement went from being a strictly underground phenomenon (a studio-only act championed largely by critics and fellow musicians who’d had their beat-up Slanted And Enchanted tapes for more than six months by the time it was officially released—perhaps one of the first examples of the music industry using intentional leaks) to more of a genuine buzz band. (Even so, sales of Slanted only tipped the 150,000-unit scale two years ago, making Pavement, perhaps, the Velvet Underground of its era.) “Frontwards” came from the group’s next move—the Watery, Domestic EP—and in many ways perfectly encapsulates the Pavement shtick: slyly competent musicianship (just dig those synched guitar/drum 16th notes on the bridge), fractured melodies made more evident by slightly improved recording techniques and lyrics that boasted in a manner more befitting the hip-hop crowd than the slack generation who adored the band (“I’ve got style, miles and miles/So much style that it’s wasted”). Perfect in every way.

4. “Gold Soundz” (1994)
Crooked Rain Crooked Rain may have escorted Pavement to the indie-rock debutante ball—Malkmus and Kannberg added a second percussionist/Bez figure (Bob Nastanovich), a bass player (Mark Ibold) and a real drummer (Nastanovich friend Steve West)—but for all of its sonic improvements and Lollapalooza-baiting, it’s still the work of five pop-culture assassins taking deadly, precise aim at the mainstream. “Gold Soundz” demonstrated that Malkmus could retain his barbed, goofy sense of humor (“Is it a crisis or a boring change?/I keep my affect to yourself … And they’re coming to the chorus now”) without changing his pitch-perfect “nothin’ matters and what if it did?” vocals. A truly golden melody woven throughout the song nevertheless failed to follow up on the radio success of “Cut Your Hair,” ensuring that Pavement would retreat to the safety of its underground culture bunker just in time for the alt-rock masses to move along to the next batch of would-be 15-minute heroes.

5. “Gangsters & Pranksters” (1995)
An outtake from the Wowee Zowee sessions, this track proved that incrementally better recording conditions (Memphis’ Easley Studios), nominally improved musical technique and expanded creative range (the album’s roving-eye/sprawling ambition ranged from Pink Floyd-like pastoral jams to punk-flavored, industry-skewering sendups like “Brinx Job” and “Serpentine Pad”) still couldn’t smooth out Pavement’s deliberately rough edges, evidently fueled by a massive amount of marijuana consumption, according to interviews the band gave at the time. “Gangsters & Pranksters” features what I believe to be the best Malkmus lyric ever: “Gangsters treat their ladies right, and pranksters curse their chickless plight/‘I’ve got all of this Harvard LSD, why won’t anybody fuck me?’” All wrapped around a melody as strong as anything in the Pavement catalog. You can thank me later.

28 replies on “The Over/Under: Pavement”

In the “under” column I’d add “Best Friend’s Arm” – jazzy, scatty, spazzy weirdness, with just enough shambolic guitar melody that I can groove to it.

I keep reading these lists hoping to glean some nuggets of awesomeness I previously overlooked, only to find each one formulaic and boring. Here’s the template in case anyone wants to try the Over/Under Home Game: List the 5 best songs by the band and pontificate why you’re so over them or so much more in-the-know than the general public. (Richard Buckner besting Pavement’s “Here,” really? Really? Maybe he should’ve recorded it then so it could be the best song he ever committed to tape.) Then pick your 5 underrated songs not based on merit or lack thereof (I actually do really like “Gold Soundz” and “Gangsters & Pranksters,” for what it’s worth) but rather based on how much of a true fan it’ll make you sound like. At least Mr. duBrowa was nice enough to give me a handy copy and paste to save me the time of typing “Maybe he should try to be less concerned with being cool and on the cutting edge than performing his job as an objective listener.”

I meant “underrated”
Again, you suck.
“I’m sure this pick will out me as a Luddite-leaning Pavement elitist”
Not really, listen to some of the b-sides mr. elitist. If you had any ears this list would not look like this.

Since my enjoyment of all the pavement albums was/is mostly confined to my house and car, and I never blogged or read too much about them, and never saw them live, I guess this kind of article is lost on me. Like I’m blissfully unaware of these “ratings” where the songs are overrated or underrated. Is there a list somewhere I can reference? Where someone has done some rating? What’s the top-rated Pavement song? Does anyone know? No. It’s not like, “oh it’s Ted Williams he batted .406 in 1946”, and so on, his stats show he’s one of the greatest hitters. Look, if S&E has sold a total of 150K albums, assuming that’s in the US only, that’s like, what, 1/25 of 1 percent of the us population that has it. So, who cares? Change this column to something better. How about: “Pavement: One Fan’s Opinion”, or “5 Thumbs in Either Direction” or “Overexposed/Unnoticed” or “I Know People in This Band So That Makes It Okay” or “Here, Listen to these 10 Songs for Free”, or “Pissing Off Eleven People Weekly” or… oh forget it.

Funny, this is the first one I really, really agree with. Either way, it’s good to hear these songs. Debris Slide!

I agree with mistercharlie, like “Where is the Street Team,” this feature only goal is to piss people off. How punk rock. I first saw Pavement in 1992. I thought then that Pavement “Sold Out” because I saw someone wearing a Red Hot Chilies T-Shirt in the line. Luckily I am no longer a snobby 18 year old, sounds like Corey duBrowa still is. Why waste your time writing about music you don’t like. There is plenty of great music out there that does not get coverage.

This is a pretty solid list. Mistercharlie might be right about “overexposed” being a better handle than “overrated,” especially in the context of “Cut Your Hair,” which still holds up well. But that’s a quibble. I love the inclusion of “Perfume-V.” But is “Debris Slide” really a difficult listen? Compared to “Gold Soundz,” maybe, but it’s clear enough what’s going on musically. Regarding “Frontwards,” the Los Campesinos! cover brings out different qualities of the song, and wonderfully so. It gives a good occasion to revisit the song and assess it from a new perspective (new if only by virtue of the passage of time).

Maybe an alternate approach to the Over/Under feature would be to post the band name a few weeks in advance, let readers submit their lists, then let your pundits comment on the results. I’ve been confused reading a few of the lists now, as I actually thought that the so-called “Unders” were well appreciated pieces of the bands catalogues. Don’t be afraid to mix it up a bit, or your Over/Under endeavor might well end up on readers “Under” list of Magnet’s new (and needed) online component.

“Carrot Rope”
“Rattled By The Rush”
“Summer Babe”

“Ann Don’t Cry”
“Gold Soundz”
“Zurich Is Stained”
“Transport Is Arranged”


What a pedantic, elitist waste of time. Who exactly was it who underrated those songs, ‘Frontwards’ in particular? And ‘Here’ is overrated because you think it should have had a better arrangement? The other overrated tracks are basically their four most well known songs, how bloody groundbreaking… Seriously the most ill-conceived, subjective and annoying crock of shit I’ve come across in all my years reading Magnet…

Also by using the phrase “Malkmus once told me..” in such a flippant manner you outed yourself as a total wanker…

“I saw alt-country artist Richard Buckner cover “Here” and thought his version a vast improvement on the original, which leads me to believe that while the Cult of Pavement holds this tune close to its heart, a different arrangement might have suited it better.”
OMFG pure blasphemy, you have no clue.
Who the hell is this richard buckner, lol.

This list is utterly meaningless, as is this entire under/over feature. Who gives a shit what you or Magnet think about these songs? certainly not your good pal stephen malkmus

How dare you not include “All My Friends” in the underrated list? Now that is the ultimate underrated Pavement song…”Debri Slide” would get full-on sing along treatment at Pavement shows. “All My Friends” didn’t even pop up until the CRCR re-issue and then blew away most of the material on the orginal album. Now that is an underrated song. Plus “Frontwars” and “Gold Soundz” would both most likely show up on a best of disc. The entire overrated list is wack. It’s just like “I hate all these songs cuz they’re kinda popular.” WTF??? “Here,” “Cut Your Hair,” and “Range Life” are all classic Pavement. Hell, the guitar solo/freakout in “Cut Your Hair” is one of the greatest moments of 90’s music by itself. This kind of writing makes me yearn for the rich, critical insight of Pitchfork.

Here is not overrated…it’s simply one of the best songs of the 90s…Buckner’s take on it is great, but it’s not his song…And props to the person listing “All My Friends”…A top Pavement song, no doubt.

Pavement has always been my favorite band.
You forgot
“Haunt You Down” & “Black Walls” & “Texas Never Whispers”
thoose are goodies!
And yes I love S.M.

Major leagues gets my vote along with Spit on a Stranger as most underrated Pavement songs. Hell, the whole Terror Twilight is underrated. I’m really surprised it makes the overrated list, do you remember 1999 when like – everyone hated this song? So now it’s overrated? It was a fantastic, melancholy and melodic song then and it still is now!

Remember that the song Here was the last song Pavement played for the end of their Terror Twilight tour, which was their last show as a contemporary working rock band. Does Corey duBrowa have the right idea about Steve Malkmus and Scott Kannberg as founding members of Pavement? The two musicians were seated square on different pages in 1990. Note the comparison to Low; is duBrowa drawing that between Pavement and Bowie?

Where is Lorreta’s Scars on the underrated list? Its easily one of the three best songs on S&E and yet it gets almost no praise.

I second All My Friends and Texas Never Whispers. Also, acknowledging that something you write might tip you off as an elitist prick doesn’t excuse you from being an elitist prick. Range Life AND Cut Your Hair? Really? Why not just post the entire Westing EP as your underrated section, really get the point across?

and wtf is gangsters and pranksters doing there? where’s Grounded? Pueblo?

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