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If you're reading this, you probably already know that Pavement is playing Millennium Park tonight at 7 pm; you can check Miles Raymer's recommendation for openers No Age here.
Mostly I bring this up because one of the people I follow on Twitter mentioned not getting why Pavement is so beloved, which is actually an ongoing question among music fans. On one hand, I don't think anyone has to "get" Pavement, much as I love them—they've got a peculiar sound which either clicks with you or doesn't. Malkmus's and Kannenberg's voices just touch something in my lizard brain, but that's not the case for everyone, which is fine.
On the other, I think Sasha Frere-Jones, writing for the Reader about Brighten the Corners (my gateway to the band), has something here:
But if most American myths have been about movin' on up, rock 'n' roll has traditionally been about getting down and dirty. Another recent Time Out piece, about the reissued Squirrel Bait albums, disparagingly describes the band as Gastr del Sol's David Grubbs "aided by a bunch of upper-middle-class kids like him playing at punk." The implication, of course, is that because the kids were born to upper-middle-class parents, they couldn't be "real" punk rockers. Never mind that Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell met at boarding school, or that Lee Ranaldo's been writing concerned letters to the New York Times about his kid's education.
Malkmus's disregard for the signifiers of class that have had rockers scuffing up their jackets, pounding heroin, and changing their surnames to Dylan for decades constitutes a sort of accidental antirevolution in American rock. Among Malkmus's countrymen, perhaps only Bruce Springsteen so clearly and consistently writes about class. Yet unlike Springsteen, who chooses words first to describe class relationships and second to clang poetically, Malkmus takes a romp through his shady backyard and comes back with images of class stuck to his socks like burrs. He's not making a commentary on the big bad world of privilege, just an unstudied reflection of environment: this is what's around me and I don't care if it impresses minor criminals.
I tried to think of other bands like this, at least before Pavement (which obviously excludes Weezer, Vampire Weekend et al). The Beach Boys was the best I could come up with, or the Beatles on "Penny Lane," which not coincidentally is my favorite Beatles song.
Malkmus tends to discourage fans from reading anything into his lyrics, but I've always heard the same thing Frere-Jones does, both in the words and their often languorous music. I've always thought that Pavement, insofar as they make anything specific besides catchy, weird rock music, compose suburban pastorals ("Shady Lane," "Summer Babe," "Lions [Linden]," "Date w/ Ikea") with agita about city life ("Fillmore Jive," "Cut Your Hair," "We Are Underused"). And they wear polo shirts.
You can perhaps understand why this was catnip for well-educated suburban kids—a nontrivial portion of the rock-critic community—who were into the Velvet Underground but were at best ambivalent about heroin, much less the joys of trying to buy it. Hip bands throughout history have had difficulty reaching audiences that were primed for edgy music that isn't explicitly hostile to the 'burbs. It was a largely untapped market, and Pavement stepped into the void. Alex Ross, SF-J's colleague at the New Yorker, has also written about the band, and as a classical-music critic, he's more focused on the sound:
“She waits there in the levee wash, mixing cocktails with a plastic-tipped cigar,” Malkmus has been singing. “Minerals, ice deposits daily drop off your first shiny robe. . . . Yooouuu’re my summer babe.” Your classic-rock song has been hijacked by surrealists. Malkmus sings it with such cool passion that the irrational lyrics somehow flow as nostalgically as the conventional lyrics they seem to have replaced.
In another song Malkmus sings, “I vent my spleen at the Lord / He is abstract and bored”; this has the same rhythmic contour as, say, Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American band.”
Pavement has found its place in the pop landscape and has refused to move an inch. It protects its core of mystery, which is also a kind of blazing innocence.
Perhaps that's how they did it: by shattering the structure of AM rock and putting the pieces back together, they damaged familiar sounds enough to sound exciting without having to give up on their essential nature as uninterestingly well-adjusted dudes. Given the largely hostile treatment of middle/upper-middle-class suburban America in music as well as fiction and film, what Pavement did isn't an insignificant achievement.
[Update: I also think that Malkmus's approach to lyrics and songwriting tapped into the sort of thing people were reading in college during the '90s—kaleidoscopic, semi-meaningless pop shards assembled in a cut-and-paste style influenced by the Beats but without the darkness or menace. About the best way I can explain it to you is to tell you that Mark Leyner, whose work was derided by David Foster Wallace as "lapidary stand-up comedy" (PDF), was the hot shit. It was what we thought of as postmodernism at the time*, and not knowing any better, we refuse to accept much blame.
* DFW: "Leyner's fiction is, in this regard, an eloquent reply to Gilder's prediction that our TV-culture problems can be resolved by the dismantling of images into discrete chunks we can recombine as we fancy . . . . The ability to combine them only adds a layer of disorientation: when all experience can be deconstructed and reconfigured, there become simply too many choices. And in the absence of any credible, noncommercial guides for living, the freedom to choose is about as 'liberating' as a bad acid trip: each quantum is as good as the next, and the only standard of an assembly's quality is its weirdness, incongruity, it's ability to stand out from a crowd of other image-constructs and wow some Audience."
I'm dating myself for your benefit: we fought about these sorts of things back in the day.]
Anyway, if you're not into Pavement, I recommend the following songs. If they don't grab you, Pavement never will, which, again, is perfectly fine; that's sort of the point of the band.
"Here," Slanted and Enchanted:
"Circa 1762," Peel Sessions, available on Slanted and Enchanted: Luxe and Reduxe:
"Silence Kit," Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain:
"Fillmore Jive," Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (my favorite Pavement song; takes a couple minutes for this live version to get into the song proper):
"Frontwards," Watery, Domestic:
"AT & T," Wowee Zowee:
"Date w/ Ikea," Brighten the Corners (no, Scott Kannberg can't sing, but the first 20 seconds are as good as any in indie rock):
"Give It a Day," Pacific Trim (this one's just kind of silly):