The year was 1994, and Pavement had laid the foundation for years of success with their second full album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. The single “Cut Your Hair,” had been a pretty large success on radio, buoyed by the hilarious video which had also been a big hit on MTV (back when they played, uh, music videos).
It was the height of the “slacker rock” era and while it was Nirvana who blew open the doors to it, most fans of indie-rock would take Pavement’s first album (the masterpiece Slanted & Enchanted) over the initial Nirvana offering any day, myself included. It bears noting, however, that Pavement sounds nothing like Nirvana. In fact, they’re almost complete opposites.
Riding the wave of success a hit single can bring, Pavement was staring at a glorious opportunity to take full advantage of a world chock-full of very ready music fans (some mainstream, some not), just waiting to see what they would do next.
Then they released Wowee Zowee. In the spring of 1995, I was on a cross-country road trip with a college friend, sitting in my 1987 Subaru in the parking lot at the legendary First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis when I heard the first single “Rattled By The Rush” come across the radio. While the song lacked the instant clutch-and-grab that “Cut Your Hair” had possessed, I was still quite happy to hear that Pavement was delivering the goods – it was a great song.
Upon arriving home from my trip in late April of ’95, one of the first things I did was report to the record store straight away to pick up Wowee Zowee. I spent the rest of my day and the next few thereafter listening to it, analyzing it, examining it note-by-note and I came to the conclusion that I was extremely disappointed by what I was hearing. Gone were the 3-4 minute messy pop songs, replaced by one minute crazy interludes or five minute wanderings. It felt uneven and marginally unlistenable. I even remember thinking that Beavis & Butthead got it right when they remarked “uh…..these guys need to practice more.”
Good thing I didn’t have a job for a month, because it took only a couple of weeks of really giving it a chance before it hit me like a punch to the gut: it was Pavement at its peak in terms of what I call “messy brilliance.”
At first, about the only thing I liked was its terribly cool cover art, a painting by Brooklyn-based artist Steven Keene (and the artwork stuck with me, as we hired Keene to paint some stuff for an album we put out on our own label years later). But as the weeks went by I vowed to give Wowee Zowee a shot – and it paid off in droves. In my eyes, it’s Pavement’s peak, containing a 18-song output so varied, so unexplainable and so calculatingly messy that it completely defied expectations (one could easily argue that there are only 12 real songs on the album). It certainly also sharply stunted any real commercial success for the band, too. Something tells me that was the purpose of the album. Naturally, I welcome that kind of stuff.
Wowee Zowee has so many…..moments. The one-minute long fuzzy-rocker “Serpentine Pad” shows ringleader Stephen Malkmus uttering the snotty “Screw You!” followed by a machine-gun anthem of a three electric-guitar shot across the bow. “Grounded” is probably one of their signatures, kicking off with a nice, mid-tempo piano-and-drums exchange and whose choruses evolve into such a beautiful interplay between a rock band hitting it on all cylinders. “AT&T” starts you off thinking that this could be the closest thing to a radio single the band has on this album, but it ends up right-turning into a total car crash – a mess of electric guitars, crashing drums and Malkmus at one point thanking “Jacob Javits for everything” and then simply screaming “bip-bip-bip-bip-bip-bip-bip-bip-bip-bip-bip-bip!” Complete domination.
As inexplicable as the album is at first listen, it took many repeated listenings to grasp it. The star that shines brightest to me on Wowee Zowee is this week’s MP3 Of The Week, the gorgeous Father To A Sister Of A Thought, a meandering and seemingly weed-influenced song with a sweet pedal steel wandering through it and more of Malkmus’s too-clever-for-his-own-good lyrics, a trait which makes him one of my favorite songwriters of all time. His lyrics consistently blow my mind to this day, both for their utter mystery and “everyday dude” themes. The song is also timed at 3:30, which is really the perfect time for a rock song, too.
All that said, there isn’t a single band before Pavement, nor after, who can match the output they had in the 1990’s. Spoon comes closest today – they have the chops and they certainly have the sound, but they lack the personality and they lack the pure fun of it all. Pavement were endlessly inventive, enjoyable, memorable, clever and insanely fun to see live. The band shares the top spot of my #1 band of the 1990’s. Take a listen to the song and enjoy!
“Father To A Sister Of A Thought”
rotten device, i’ll say it twice
i’m too much
i’m too much comforted here
costs too much too much
we’ll leave you
everywhere eyes, nowhere to die
no place to shove your sharpened heel
i’m looking looking for a tired face
in case you wanted to go
i know, i’m breathing in to the end
calling the bluffs, talking so tough
goodbye to the ugly steeple fear
good times for ever after
i’m just a man
you see who i am
i’m binding my hooks
and open the books
dirty black hearts
angel of corpus cristi
you’re so misty, tell me what i want to hear
i know i’m reeling in…[x2]
to the end [x4]
i know i’ll never know [x2]