Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cracks In The Cement (Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Go Ahead And Not Like Pavement)

What started as a quick trip ended up as something else altogether...

In my excitement to dash off to a favorite writing location, hoping eagerly to squirrel myself away in a corner and bang out the current thing that's swirling around in my head, I hopped on the southbound train instead of the northbound. Not a big problem, as I just had to go south 3 stops to avoid paying another entrance fee, switch to the other side of the platform, and head north four stops, and I'm where I was going in the first place. Of course, once I hit the turnaround, I hear that there are a track delays on the northbound. Ugh... more time lost, and I was hoping to make this somewhat fast. It takes forever to get to my ultimate destination, even though it's maybe a half-mile from my apartment. My own fault, but c'est la vie.

But, you see, with the past year giving me a newly optimistic outlook, I take the opportunity, stuck on the rush-hour subway, to dial up some Pavement on my iPod, as they're my intended subject for this piece. Until now, I've never been a big fan of Pavement. But they've just re-released Brighten The Corners, which, as much as any, could be my favorite Pavement album. As "Shady Lane" turns into "Transport Is Arranged", the subway lurches foreward as the sun goes down west over the Charles River, and I feel, well...

[Pause Part I]

[Begin Part II]

When you're learning how to write in the more advanced stages of schooling, they teach you to open up long-form journalistic articles in a number of ways. One of the more"creative" is to use your storytelling powers in miniature, and since all good stories have a setup, a conflict, a climax, and a resolution, you can use this miniature framework to then put the larger piece in perspective. "He's stuck on a subway", "he doesn't like Pavement". "He puts on Pavement, has a moment with the sunset, the train clacking..."

"He still doesn't really like Pavement."

Now, boys and girls, I've lost some serious cred with friends, co-workers, and bandmates over the years, who just claim that I don't get it, or I haven't listened to it enough, or that I've heard too much of what's come after to understand how good it is ("Big Star Syndrome"). For years, in certain circles, I've been ashamed to admit my sort of ambivalent dislike of them, for fear of sudden hipper-than-thou cold-shouldering and cracks about how I should go back to the basics. I've finally realized that I can stand up and say with definition that I just don't care for them. No real ill will, I can think of dozens of other so-called canonical bands that I like less, but I'm sick of pretending that I really dig 'em.

Do I get it? Yeah, I do. I don't think my understanding of indie rock is really a question here. Although I hate the "slacker" tag, it's music by highly-educated graduates who sharpened their teeth on the pre-grunge college rock scene, taking equally from the American underground of rock like Dinosaur Jr, arty British post-punk like Gang Of Four and (sorry, guys) The Fall, and scratched-vinyl avant-garde underground stuff like Royal Trux. Smart enough to understand the lineage, they put these elements in a blender and made sure to come at it with a smirk, as though it was a thrown-together term paper to get a good enough grade, but have enough stuff in it that was over the professor's head that the joke's on him. Like referring to the masterful bass playing of Dale Nixon in the U.S. underground rock scene of the '80s (look it up, see what I mean?). And no matter how these guys deny it, this is "slacker-rock" to the core. A melange of it's influences, delivered with an ironic detachment, back in a time when irony meant something.

Have I given it a chance? Sure I have. In fact, I own the deluxe reissues of their first three records. Why? Because I periodically think that I do like Pavement. They have a decently-sized discography that's weird enough to be interesting, smart enough to be layered, and the reissues are without a doubt some of the best I've ever come across. Two discs, tons of liner notes, packed with extras, and usually for less than a single-disc album costs at Best Buy. Now that's a deal. But maybe I'm buying them more as a record collector than a Pavement fan. After reading about them, I'm always HOPING that I'll like the records more and more, and just in case, I picked up the deluxe versions, cause since they're so cheap, and since I used to work in a record store they were even cheaper, and why not have them so that "when I finally hear Pavement click for me", I can just wallow in their awesomeness. But no matter how many times I listen, that click hasn't happened yet. Maybe it never will, but just in case, I'm not selling those reissues anytime soon.

That article I once mentioned about Radiohead and Springsteen was going to be along the same lines... I wish I liked each of them as much as people who really like them like them. I realize that part of the appeal is supposed to be Steve Malkmus' tossed-off vocals, but those really do grate sometimes, and I like angular and lo-fi, but something about a lot of this stuff just seems disingenious. But maybe since I wasn' t really rocking the 7" vinyl in 1989, the idea of disingeniousness among a sea of lameass hair-metal was refreshing.

I have a lot of friends who love this band, or at least like them a whole lot, and I have no problem with that, but there are some who hold their love of this band like a badge, not just because they have a connection with the records, but because they think it guarantees them a certain safety credibility in a world of very snooty people. For example, just about any critic who likes them applies a comparison to them in even the least likely places. A friend of mine just sent me a couple albums by Butterglory, a band I'd never heard of until he sent them my way. To his ears, and mine, they sound like a band on Merge in the early '90s, which is to say that they sound a lot like Superchunk. While that could sound damning, as though they don't have an identity, I mean it more as a compliment to the band and label at a time when label identity made sense. If you said to me, "here's a band on Dischord", I'd have some idea where they might be coming from. There are always exceptions to the rule, but Dischord, Merge, Sub Pop, Matador, etc... they all had a sort of sound that made their groups familial. Yet somehow, several reviews I've read compare Butterglory to Pavement. That's just lazy criticism. Laconic vocals over slightly jarred guitars, singing clear pop melodies? Sure could describe Pavement, but as my friend Brent put it, people like to apply the "sounds like Pavement" tag to underground bands that play pop, which as I can tell, was a rather slight side of Pavement. My favorite moments of theirs, to be sure, but "Summer Babe" is not the song I would use to sum up their sound. Yet somehow, indie rockers play a pop song with out-of-tune Lou Reed speak-sing, and suddenly it's Pavement-esque. Is that fair to anyone? Nope. I understand that you really like this band, but don't tell me that every band that comes within a hundred miles of them sound like them. It'll just make me not want to listen to a score of bands that I might otherwise love. How would you like it if every time you asked me about a band I told you it sounded like the Butthole Surfers? Might scare you off of some things. Although I stand by my assertion that Sloan's Navy Blues is the spiritual follow-up to Psychic... Powerless... Another Man's Sac. And don't even get me started on how the last Okkervil River single just totally lifted the melody and arrangement from "I Saw An X-Ray Of A Girl Passing Gas." It's not fair to Pavement, though, to bitch about the fans. Although it does seem that punk rock finally had it's victory with them - there truly seems to be little definition between the band and the fans. The kind of people who listen to Pavement are the kind of people Pavement are. The divide between performer and audience is truly crumbled.

So rock on Pavement. You made good albums that I just don't really like. A far lesser offense than many, and you're never going to hear me say that they sucked. Just don't expect me to be first in line for the reunion shows.

[End Part II]

[Resume Part I]

...bored. I turn off the Pavement album, realizing that I've got about a hundred other albums on this iPod. I briefly think about some Prince bootleg, but end up going with The Telescopes instead.

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