Pop & Circumstance: Still Slanted

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? And if an obscure rock band makes an unbelievable record that falls under the mainstream radar, does it still matter?

As an obsessive rock fan, I listen to a lot of stuff that not many people ever hear. This isn’t “underground” elitism or hipper-than-thou disdain for what’s popular – it’s just a love of music. That includes all music, popular or not. And some of it is pretty good, I guess – but there are a few bands that I feel, I know would have sold millions and millions of copies if only they’d been heard by a wider audience, if MTV had rocked their videos or if radio had spun their singles. One of these bands is Stockton, the reincarnation of California’s now defunct Pavement.

I feel weird even writing about Pavement in a so-called “popular music column,” just because I doubt many of you, dear readers, have ever had the pleasure of taking in any of their music. So go ahead and stop reading if you feel this is just another example of a sub-par journalist in a college rag gushing about some band or movie that no one cares about. It just in fact may be. But the story of Pavement and their debut album Slanted and Enchanted deserves to be told just as their music deserves to be heard. And why not tell it now, to commemorate the 10th anniversary reissue of that seminal album?

Let’s go back in time. The year is 1991. Hair-band metal has run its course, rap is still threatening to Middle America and punk rock has been pushed so far underground no one quite knows where it is. The music biz needs something to sell – and sell a lot. There is a gigantic industry buzz on two bands: a trio of gangly lads on the Sub Pop label going by the moniker of Nirvana, and an as yet unsigned band called Pavement.

Pavement was really two guys: Stephen Malkmus and the mysterious Spiral Stairs (probably a fake name), who solved their post-college-living-with-parents-malaise syndrome by recording a few songs on their four-track recording device. Some of the songs were pretty good, and they convinced their neighbor Gary Young, a burned-out 40-year old hippie retired to suburbia, to contribute some drum tracks. Now the songs were even better, and the boys mixed the tracks onto a seven inch vinyl record entitled Slay Tracks and sent the demo to a few record labels.

The labels were jazzed. Malkmus, Stairs and Young signed on to the independent label Matador Records and recorded some more songs for a full-length album. But no one had the money for a real studio, so the songs were still done on a four track in Young’s garage. And the sound was gloriously sloppy. It sounded like someone spilled water on the master tapes. Dirty as hell.

But dammit, those songs were rock and roll in a way rock and roll hadn’t been for a long time – fuzzed out, groove-driven ’60s-ish melodies with lyrics that made not a whit of sense.

These white, suburban Gen X slacker stereotypes had stumbled onto the pure rock animus of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols, even if the music was more influenced by the British post-punk of the Fall and Wire.

Slanted and Enchanted was released in 1992 and blew everyone’s mind – everyone who heard it, that is. See, in 1992, the aforementioned Nirvana band just so happened to release a certain Nevermind album. And that was on Geffen Records, so the album received the full David Geffen publicity treatment – vids, radio and a publicity push not of this world.

We know what happened to Nirvana. No need to repeat that story. Pavement went on to amaze the music world, but they never made it past the college radio/indie rock/rock critic playing ground – even though their music was just as original and powerful as that of Messrs. Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl.

The stories of Nirvana and Pavement provide a bittersweet prince and pauper rock and roll narrative. Nirvana made it big beyond their wildest dreams, became the soundtrack of a generation fed up with, well, everything and eventually self-destructed because of their success. Anyone who was alive during their heyday won’t soon forget it.

Pavement, the other greatest band of the ’90s, refused major label after major label following the critical success of Slanted and Enchanted. After Pavement concerts in ’92, the band would have to dodge hordes of major label execs backstage. The execs said “You guys are unbelievable. Sign with us and we’ll make you bigger than Nirvana. Hell, you’re better than those guys anyway.”

And Pavement said no. They said no to rock stardom and groupies and MTV Cribs houses and everything that you and I dream of nightly. This was Pavement’s greatest mistake and their biggest triumph. They went on to make four more incredible records and win a huge international following.

Their music is among the very best that rock ’n roll has to offer, even if they spent their entire career with little to no mainstream press on an indie label. But then again, they don’t have Nirvana’s legacy.

What is that worth? It’s hard to tell, I guess. Because Pavement could have been as big as Nirvana, we could be talking about Malkmus in the same breath as Cobain. What a twisted world, where a record deal is the only obstacle barring a band from becoming legendary.

All that aside, the 10th anniversary reissue of Slanted and Enchanted still sounds fresh today. Tons of extra tracks and an entire live set make this a worthwhile buy if you’re a fan or have never even heard of these Pavement guys.

Or, you know what, download some Pavement mp3s. I don’t condone file sharing, but some music just needs to be heard. Pavement, comprised of would-be rock-stars, is a band that 10 years ago said no to wealth and stardom for reasons we will never understand. And why try, when all that matters is the music itself?