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Alternative and Indie

Pavement

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Hugely influential California slackers with a string of critically acclaimed albums

Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships, but Pavement’s sound launched a thousand bands. Lo-fi, noisy, opaquely literate, catchy-as-wool-on-a-wire-hanger – its smart-ass slacker sensibilities made them possibly the defining indie band of the ‘90s.

The band started off in California in the late ‘80s when frontman Stephen Malkmus returned home from university and teamed up with friend Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg. The two headed to local Stockton studio Louder Than You Think to record their first EP, enlisting the owner Gary Young to play drums for them.

Pavement quickly made a powerful fan in UK DJ John Peel and their debut album Slanted And Enchanted added nearly every music journalist in the world to that list. Without compromising their blasts of dissonance and idiosyncratic strangeness, the band assembled a stunningly unique and frequently infectious album of top-drawer indie rock. Opener Summer Babe suggested the melodic sensibilities that would become increasingly prominent, while the gloriously downbeat Here showed Malkmus could be both arch and movingly sincere.

Just before recording the album, Pavement had added bassist Mark Ibold and a second drummer, Bob Nastanovich, to counteract Young’s libertarian approach to timing. Young eventually left shortly after the album’s release, his eccentricities (like handing out salads to the audience and performing handstands on stage) outweighing his drumming. Nastanovich’s friend Steve West took his spot, if not his salads.

Pavement didn’t entirely reinvent their own wheel for Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain but it was still something of a turn up for the books. The sound was cleaner, the songs were tighter and the melodicism that occasionally swam through Slanted’s distorted murk was now front and centre. Pavement being Pavement and Malkmus being Malkmus, the lyrics were still as inscrutable as ever but there was no denying the immediacy of the likes of Gold Soundz, Silence Kid (which borrowed the melody of Buddy Holly’s Everyday) and the minor hit Cut Your Hair.

Crooked Rain was supposed to be the band’s breakthrough to the mainstream, but instead proved that Pavement were far too idiosyncratic to be the next R.E.M. It did considerably bolster their cult status, a position reinforced by 1995’s Wowee Zowee, a sprawling, messy, chaotic double album that actively rejected any attempt to turn the band into the “next big thing”. Critics were unsure, but the core fanbase loved it and its reputation has only grown since.

Pavement teamed up with ex-Let’s Active frontman and regular R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter for their fourth studio album, 1997’s Brighten The Corners. With its off-kilter verses, stream of consciousness lyrics and surprisingly triumphant chorus, opener Stereo is almost the quintessential Pavement song. Corners marked a return to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’s more accessible approach, albeit with a markedly more melancholic feel.

In retrospect, Terror Twilight could only have been a farewell. As with The Replacements’ All Shook Down, Pavement’s fifth and final album was more of a solo project for the band’s leader and acted as a neat segue into Malkmus’s career post-Pavement. That said, it is probably their most cohesive and boasts two of their prettiest moments in Spit On A Stranger and Major Leagues. Rumours abounded that the end was nigh, finally confirmed by the band on stage in Brixton in November 1999.

Malkmus moved on to a new era with The Jicks while Kannberg released records both as Spiral Stairs and Preston School Of Industry. Detailed reissues of all of their albums followed, as did the comprehensive Best Of, Quarantine The Past. Eventually, Pavement returned for a reunion tour in 2010.

In 2021, the band announced that they were reuniting and Pavement UK tour dates were confirmed for October 2022 along with a live album recorded during the Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain tour.