Pounding the Pavement
Sometimes when the party is over, everyone has left, the empty glasses still stand about and I’m sleepy yet want to listen to one more album, it is Slanted & Enchanted that almost invariably comes out. Instead of on the audio system, increasingly these days, in deference to the others that I live with, it is cranked up on the iPod. I find Pavement’s first (and may I say, classic) album’s fractured music, esoteric lyrics and the entire low-fidelity quality of sound a perfect way to top off a night of excesses.
Every time I listen to Slanted & Enchanted (released in 1992), I can’t help but be reminded that this was the one record that helped establish or start a new genre of music in the late 1990s. The first time I heard S&E what struck me was the near amateurish imperfection of the sound, the roughness, the fuzziness of the recording, the feedback that pops up now and then and, of course, the lyrics—clever but hard to fathom. I put it aside for months after that first listen but when I eventually brought it back out, I loved it. It’s stayed that way. It’s my one-for-the-road album, my nightcap album, my alone-on-a-deserted-island-with-just-one-album album.
I’ll tell you why I’m writing about Pavement. They are finally reuniting for some gigs next year. That, after years of constant rumours about a reunion since they broke up in 1999, is finally true. Pavement emerged in the US (in California) in the early 1990s and though they never hit the really big times, they found a cult following and bestowed huge influence over many subsequent bands and musicians. You could probably say lo-fi or low-fidelity as a sub-genre of indie rock music began with Pavement and a few other bands. Let me see whether I can describe lo-fi without playing you some samples of that sound.
The easy way to explain it is that it is the opposite of hi-fi. If high fidelity sound is an immaculately recorded, mixed, edited and mastered proffering of pop music, lo-fi is ragged, primitive and raw renditions of music. It all began in the late 1980s and gathered momentum in the 1990s in what I think was a reaction against too much slickly produced, shiny pop music that was ruling the charts then.
Lo-fi bands often used old technology to record their music and shunned the use of too many gizmos and digital doo-dahs. Even today, many bands follow that route in what you might say is an attempt to keep their music authentic. Jack White of The White Stripes and of so many other projects (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather and more) famously shuns high-tech gear for recording and performing, choosing analogue over digital equipment to produce what many classify as minimalist rock. One of my friends, way more wise and, indeed, learned, calls all this “post-modernism in contemporary music”. I don’t know what that means but it certainly seems to sound right!
Like Pavement’s music always does to me. Pavement’s breakup happened when frontman, guitarist, singer and composer, Stephen Malkmus, decided to bail out. Malkmus went on his own and played with several projects—including Silver Jews, which had two other members of Pavement and was a kind of a side-act of theirs; and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, which was more of a Malkmus outfit. Neither was as interesting as Pavement, at least to my ears. I still try to zero in on what makes Pavement do it for me—is it their music? Or the rough-edged sound? Or is it the lyrics? All of these together, of course, but the lyrics add a certain edge to Pavement’s music. Check out these excerpts (from The Mouth of A Desert):
Can you treat it like an oil well
When it’s underground, out of sight?
And if the sight is just a whore sign
Can it make enough sense to me?
Pretend the table is a trust knot
We’ll put our labels down, faith is down
I’ll watch the yards of twine unravel
And you’ll never get it back.
There are many bands that have followed the Pavement. But there are other proponents of the lo-fi genre who’ve been around for a while. Some, like New Jersey’s strangely named Yo La Tengo have been around from even before Pavement. Formed in 1984 by Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, a husband and wife team, Yo La Tengo are indie stars today and are still going strong after quarter or a century.
Listen to any of their 13 albums and you can see influences of Sonic Youth, Velvet Underground and even Dylan. I’d recommend 2006’s I’m Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (not only because of the deliciously appealing title!) or (the reason why I’m mentioning the band) their recently issued album, simply called, Popular Songs. Yo La Tengo’s music has all the low-fi attributes and, unlike Pavement, even their lyrics are sung in a muted, understated mumble. Another of my favourite nightcap bands.
Listen to ‘virual’ tracks: