“I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way,” the poet John Ashbery wrote in 1972. “And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.” For 10 years, from 1989 to 1999, Pavement made music that lived in this gap of poetic indeterminacy—the gap, as Lou Reed put it, between thought and expression. They were the most consistent band of the ’90s, transmuting the noise and chaos of scenemakers like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. into glamour and melody, and restoring lyrical romanticism to an indie-rock world that had learned to feed on its own disillusionment. Few bands were funnier, or better, at describing their own sound in song, always better than the critics they loved to hoodwink: “electricity and lust,” “tricks are everything,” “style for miles and miles/so much style that it’s wasted,” “Can you treat it like an oil well/When it’s underground, out of sight?” “a special new band.”
In 2002, Matador expanded Pavement’s debut album, Slanted & Enchanted, into a double CD encompassing the Watery Domestic EP, B-sides, one-offs, Peel sessions, and a widely bootlegged live show. At this point in their development they could do no wrong, and having this material together in one place only makes that clearer. The music—the title goes a long way toward describing the sound—takes shape around singer-guitarist Steven Malkmus, much of it in overdubs that allowed for what partner Scott Kannberg calls “happy accidents.” Malkmus seems to be finding his way through these songs for the first time, using his voice and guitar to navigate. Almost 13 years later, the sense of discovery, of exploration, remains overwhelming.
Now comes a similar reissue of 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain that includes a disc of material that has never even been bootlegged. It’s less compelling, but still fascinating. By this time, the music was no longer taking shape around Malkmus; now Malkmus was calling it forth, directing it, dictating the form. Pavement is in transition here—CRCR is a California album recorded on 32nd Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. These songs are products of skill, not accident, and the previously unreleased tracks document a band learning how to turn one into the other. Eight come from aborted sessions at original drummer Gary Young’s studio in Stockton, California. Young was drinking so much they could only work in the morning, and it shows—the sound is a little bleary-eyed. Most of the vocals seem to be scratch takes where Malkmus has yet to find either melody or lyric.
Still, as the sessions continue in New York with a new drummer, you can hear how he used his habit of making lyrics up at the mic to map his unconscious, and how much power the music draws from just that. The sloppy off-the-cuff jokes (“I never had any children. . . . Maybe I’d like to fuck a woman and make one/But I don’t know if I should because I don’t have a real steady job”) make it plain that his great subject was a longing for love and domesticity at war with the bohemian pull of poetry, art, and rock & roll. So much for his much-bruited lyrical opacity. And though only a few of the bonus tracks are must-hears, including “Fucking Righteous,” a jam as in-the-red as the Velvet Underground’s “European Son” or “Sister Ray,” pleasures and surprises abound. It’s the sound of a great band gaining ambition, confidence, ability. Soon Pavement will take some of these first-draft songs on the road, and eventually they’ll recut them for their masterpiece, Wowee Zowee.
Put it all down or leave it all out. Malkmus—an Ashbery fan—knew there was no hope of truly doing either. So he went for songs that attempted both at once. In the gap this created, music and listeners could talk to each other, define each other. They still can.