Pavement In 10 Songs

20 February 2023 | 12:05 pm | Steve Bell

Ahead of their triumphant 2023 Australian return, we’ve chosen ten songs that capture Pavement's idiosyncratic essence.

(Pic by Tarina Westlund)

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US indie rockers Pavement were pioneers of the fertile ‘90s indie rock boom, cutting a swathe through the rock underground with their seemingly laissez-faire, lo-fi approach to their craft - which, no doubt unfairly, earned them the ‘slacker rock’ tag - at a time when the musical landscape was dominated by bands pulling off earnest grunge affectations.

They split in 1999, leaving behind five acclaimed albums that are still revered in the indie realms - and which have inspired generations of ensuing acts - so ahead of their triumphant 2023 Australian return, we’ve chosen ten songs that capture the band’s idiosyncratic essence.


Release: Slay Tracks: 1933-1969 EP (1989)

The beginnings of Pavement found two school friends from Stockton, CA - Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg (initially using the pseudonyms S.M. and Spiral Stairs, respectively) - writing scrappy indie/punk songs in their bedrooms, inspired by the many bands they idolised (not just The Fall, Swell Maps and the many Flying Nun acts which are routinely trotted out as early influences). They, by chance, joined forces with older producer Gary Young when he recorded the sessions which became their self-released debut EP Slay Tracks 1933-1969 - also drumming on the tracks and eventually rounding out the band’s initial trio - the catchiest track of this initial foray being the timeless Box Elder.


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Release: Slanted & Enchanted (1992)

Pavement scored incredible traction with their early trio of EPs - their lo-fi missives widely championed by fanzines and college radio - and they signed to Matador Records for their debut album Slanted & Enchanted, which dropped in 1992 (and in 1999 was ranked #3 on Pitchfork’s list of The Top 100 Albums of The ‘90s). The single ‘Summer Babe’ had been released on Drag City in 1991, but a slightly re-jigged mix of the song title Summer Babe (Winter Version) would ultimately open Slanted & Enchanted.


Release: Slanted & Enchanted (1992)

While Malkmus always provided the bulk of Pavement’s material, co-founder Kannberg’s consistent contributions were imperative to the band’s charisma and appeal, and the Slanted & Enchanted album cut Two States remains one of his most enduring moments and is still a staple of their live sets (the refrain of “40 million daggers!” proving a ragged sing-along unifier).


Release: Watery Domestic (1992)

At the very tail-end of 1992 - with their star on the ascent - Pavement released the Watery Domestic EP, which, as well as being beloved by hardcore fans, marked the last release to feature the increasingly erratic Young on drums, as well as the first to officially welcome until-then touring members Mark Ibold (bass) and Bob Nastanovich (percussion/vocals) into the ranks. All four songs on the EP are killer.


Release: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)

In 1994 Pavement’s second album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain found them moving away from their defiantly lo-fi sound and underground influences and embracing elements of classic rock and even country rock, resulting in a more accessible feel and introducing them to whole new audiences. With the addition of drummer Steve West (who replaced Young), it marked the start of the “classic line-up”, and while the album’s second single, Gold Soundz, was ranked #1 on Pitchfork’s 2010 list of the 200 Greatest Songs of The ‘90s, it’s the lead single Cut Your Hair - taking obliquely hilarious potshots at the role of image in the music industry - which ultimately became Pavement’s best-selling and best-known song.


Release: Wowee Zowee (1995)

For their third album Wowee Zowee pavement decamped to a Memphis studio and once more pivoted aesthetically, this time moving back towards - rather than away from - their more experimental tendencies. The result is a sprawling 18-track epic that confused many casual fans upon release but, to many hardcore fans, remains the band’s high-water mark (it remains this writer’s favourite album of all time). The pedal steel-laden Father To A Sister Of A Thought was the album’s second single and the closest they ever got to alt-country.


Release: Brighten The Corners (1997)

Pavement’s fourth album Brighten The Corners incredibly marked the first time that they’d worked with an outside producer - roping in Bryce Goggin and Mitch Easter (who’d helmed their beloved early-‘80s R.E.M. albums) - with once more accessible results, due to both the production and the (relatively) more traditional arrangements. On the album’s second single, Shady Lane, Malkmus’ lyrics are charmingly cryptic and inscrutable, but the song’s cruisy vibes cannot be denied.


Release: Brighten The Corners (1997)

Brighten The Corners also features one of Kannberg’s finest recorded moments in the form of Date With Ikea, mixing Byrds-ian jangle with some fuzzed-out bass and a vaguely existential narrative for stellar results.


Release: Terror Twilight (1999)

By their 1999 final album Terror Twilight, the wheels were falling off internally -   divisions seemingly exacerbated inadvertently by producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck), who oversaw the sessions in New York and London - but despite the odds being stacked against them, they ultimately triumphed over adversity with a classic-sounding album that’s stood the test of time wonderfully, perfectly evidenced by the timeless (and cautiously optimistic in the circumstances) Major Leagues.


Release: Spit On A Stranger single (1999)

Pavement have released no new music since splitting in 1999 (outside their extensive reissue campaign), but the one song in their catalogue that’s taken on new life over the intervening years is Harness Your Hopes, the b-side to 1999 single Spit On A Stranger. Recorded originally for Brighten The Corners but cut from the tracklist, it was long considered one of Pavement’s catchiest b-sides but has in recent times been adopted by the TikTok generation and is now (somehow) their most-played song on Spotify, becoming a staple of their setlists during the 2022-2023 reunion to reflect this new, younger fanbase (even scoring itself a shiny new film-clip) - a typically mystifying addendum to Pavement’s incredible and inimitable career.

Pavement’s tour kicks off in Perth on Wed 22 Feb – tickets are available now via Frontier Touring.