A lot of double albums, reissues, and bonus CDs are made up of only old material that isn’t worth rehashing. If something wasn’t good enough to make the cut the first time around, why should it be released in special packaging, and at a high price? The new Pavement double album, a deluxe reissue of their 1994 sophomore effort “Crooked Rain Crooked Rain” — plus 37 bonus tracks recorded during “Rain”-era sessions — is a wonderful exception. Immediately appreciated by diehard fans, but completely accessible to strangers of the great indie-rock trailblazers, the the two-CD set is simply quality rock and roll. It is the kind of intelligent and freewheeling music that still is graced by the sophisticated presence it had ten years ago.
One of the most influential and distinctive bands of the ’90s indie rock scene, California-born Pavement led the lo-fi movement with characteristically quirky songs, Stephen Malkmus’ sincere and ragged vocals, discordant blasts of sound, cryptic but literate lyrics, and irreverent low-fidelity production. The band was initially conceived in the late ’80s as a studio project between Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg, both vocalists and guitarists.
Eventually growing to five men, Pavement released their classic debut album “Slanted and Enchanted” in 1992, to lavish critical praise and a cultish word-of-mouth following. Eccentric and problematic drummer Gary Young left the band in 1993, which was followed by the recording of the cleaner-sounding “Crooked Rain Crooked Rain” in 1994. The album expanded the band’s fan-base dramatically, though they were, and remain today, underground and not mainstream heroes.
Recording three more critically-lauded albums in the ’90s, Pavement broke up in 1999. Even with only one near-hit (“Cut Your Hair,” from “Rain”) and their relatively short life, hip establishment like the Village Voice have called Pavement “the finest rock band of the ’90s.”
Proof of their continued influence, the “Crooked Rain Crooked Rain: L.A.’s Desert Origins” is a 49-song, deluxe release of swaggering rock. With a versatile sound both organically mellow and playfully exuberant, the album is a collection of unassailable songs that justify Matador Record’s grandiose re-creation.
Along with all the music is a colorful 62-page booklet of press photos, interviews, press releases, and insightful commentary.
The encyclopedic reissue effectively catalogues Pavement’s meandering musical experimentation. The first dozen tracks on the first disc — titled “Back to the Gold Soundz (Phantom Power Parables)” — make up the original album, carrying catchy melodies blended with audaciously cacophonous instrumentality.
Highlights include “Silence Kit,” with its seemingly random use of cow bells, thumping bass, and messy guitars — though together they combine to create a lush, anthemic pop song. “Range Life” is a breezy country-rock tune that saunters through the reverie with unaffectedness and a casually uplifting bass line.
The rest of the disc showcases the previously released, but non-LP material from the “Crooked Rain” era. Included are tracks culled from B-sides, bonus 7″s, tour EPs, cuts from various compilations, and so-called tribute tracks to R.E.M. This material isn’t as strong as the well-organized Pavement albums, though there are wonderful highlights (“Raft”). Especially interesting are alternate versions of songs on the album, (“5-4”). More amusing are the two R.E.M.-influenced songs: a despondent cover of “Camera” and the sardonically bright “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence.”
The real treats on the double album come on the second disc, called “After the Glow (Where Eagles Dare).” Out of the 25 tracks on the CD, a whopping 21 are previously unreleased. The first eight are from sessions with original drummer Young. Though not polished, they are reminiscent of the band’s remarkable evolution.
The disc also includes different versions of many songs from “Crooked Rain,” including a respectable but static version of “Range Life,” and a smooth and fluid cut of “Stop Breathing.”
Of the “new” tracks, “F**ing Righteous” is a fun, upbeat song that definitely should’ve been released sooner. The disc closes with four tracks from the February 1994 “Peel Sessions” — recorded on the BBC radio show of John Peel, who passed away this week. All are compelling and incredibly entertaining.
The bottom line on the less-circulated material of the immense “Crooked Rain” is demonstrated by the wonderfully interesting and fulfilling experience of listening to the product of a consistently impressive band. Never lacking originality or a sense of style, Pavement’s unique mix of dissonance and harmony speaks to musical capabilities still yet to be successfully matched.
While one may rue the day that Pavement stopped making music, the periodic release of their unknown songs — usually packaged with their official albums — will for now suffice to sustain the band’s deserved legacy. It feels almost as if Pavement never left. And what a fortunate fantasy that is.