by Chris Hatch
When Pavement released their second studio album in 1994, the alternative music scene in the US had been riding the crest of a wave. Genre-defining records from the likes of Soundgarden, Nirvana and Beastie Boys would all go on to reach number one in the Billboard chart that year, and acts which had emerged from the DIY underground had become household names. But the worm was slowly starting to turn – as with most crossovers, there is always a danger that A&R men, TV Execs and unscrupulous advertisers start to see the dollar signs, and the inevitable sub-par ‘cash-ins’ begin to appear. It was the first flashes of this cynicism that ended up seeping into Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – an album that satirically critiqued the music scene. Questions about whether The Stone Temple Pilots were ‘foxy’ or not, tales of ‘Range Rovin’ with the cinema stars’, and a tongue in cheek line about the ‘drummer’s hair’ were all thinly-veiled barbs about the way the mainstream media and related hangers-on had started to jump on the alternative bandwagon.
For a songwriter who’s often claimed his lyrics are largely nonsensical, and is known for using phrases purely because they sound good together, on Crooked Rain it seemed Stephen Malkmus was making more of a point. None more so than on Elevate Me Later. But instead of a typical punk attack on the rich, Malkmus cuts them down with wry digs at the woes of upper class fashionistas and again at the music suits.
For all of Pavement’s avant-garde, noiserock-lite tendencies, they’ve always had a deft ear for melody, and pop gem Cut Your Hair is a fine example. A scuzzy, upbeat song complete with a throwaway ‘ooh ooh ooh’ refrain that mocks the image obsessed music scene, and the poseurs and scenesters that inhabit it.
The jewel in the crown of the album is undoubtedly Gold Soundz – a beautifully written, twilight-kissed song that shifts focus momentarily and catches the melancholy feeling of remembering people or times that have been lost. 5-4=Unity maybe shouldn’t have made the cut. However, on an album that moved away from the MTV-led version of alternative music, it isn’t surprising that Pavement included an instrumental in a 5/4 time signature – in fact it wouldn’t have been surprising for them to release it as a lead single.
Alt-country track, Range Life, is an Americana-tinged song that trots along breezily, and stays just on the right side of being glib or cheesy. With brilliantly throwaway lyrics, Malkmus describes youth in suburban America, and makes the mundane sound idyllic- ‘Out on my skateboard, the night is just humming/ And the gum smacks are the pulse I’ll follow if my Walkman fades’. After an understated, but perfectly placed bar-room band middle eight, Malkmus again can’t help but turn his thoughts to his contemporaries, referencing both The Stone Temple Pilots and The Smashing Pumpkins – and on a song with such a carefree, laid back sentiment it’s easy to see why Malkmus has nothing in common with Chicago’s perpetual nihilists.
Pavement always had a punk ethos, DIY values – they didn’t really fit into the Generation X mould. It’s also hard to say exactly when Pavement peaked (they would go on to release three more brilliant studio albums), but it could be argued that commercially, critically, and creatively Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain wasn’t ever really bettered. The band split after Terror Twilight in 1999, but would reunite again in 2010 to tour in support of the aptly named best of compilation, Quarantine The Past. They also announced last year that they would be reforming once again to play a pair of shows this weekend to celebrate the anniversary of Primavera festival, which, obviously, has been postponed due to the Covid-19 outbreak. But the reaction to the announcement was greeted with such anticipation that it’s hard to overstate their ongoing popularity.
Members of Pavement have forayed into other musical ventures since the split, but it’s Malkmus who found the most success in the post-Pavement years – releasing a plethora of albums, including 2018’s Sparkle Hard, that would arguably go on to overshadow the Pavement back catalogue, and cement himself as the ever inventive, constantly shifting godfather of lo-fi slacker rock.
In terms of its legacy, Crooked Rain helped inform new generations to a whole host of other artists – including modern day acts Parquet Courts and Car Seat Headrest. Their influence has been synonymous with some of the best alternative music of the last quarter of a century, while still remaining a band who simply can’t be imitated.
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