Despite what the naysayers might say about Crooked Rain, the other fan favourites bookending the 1994 album, Slanted And Enchanted and Wowee Zowee are much like a lot of Pavement’s discography – overlong and crammed full of ideas. Their first album, 1992’s Slanted And Enchanted, was a lesson in slacker-rock with elements of Sonic Youth’s noise rock built in for good measure. On the other side, Wowee Zowee was an exploration of musical styles beyond rock. But they were both so full of ideas that it becomes hard to define them easily, and that’s where Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain comes in. It’s Pavement’s most accessible release, a solid twelve tracks which narrowed down some of the filler on the other two favourites. It’s also their most concise album; not a concept album as such, but a scathing criticism of the rock industry as the underground bubbled up and then died a painful death around them in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death.
Of course Pavement’s two big hits, ‘Cut Your Hair’ and ‘Range Life’ were also furiously anti-establishment. It makes complete sense that as MTV was in its prime, Pavement come along with lyrics like ‘Advertising looks and chops a must’ and ‘Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins / …They don’t have no function’. Both these songs come across as a slacker-rock ‘In Bloom’ of sorts, delivering a hit song whilst criticising short-term fans. Both are killer songs, by any means. ‘Cut Your Hair’ cuts down on an experimentalism Pavement were prone to, instead consisting of a power chord thrash and a piss-take solo that the band would parody on their major TV performance with Jay Leno, alongside weird screaming. On the other side there’s ‘Range Life’, a country-inflected song with some of Scott ‘Spiral Stairs’ Kannberg’s best guitarwork weaving around what else would be some bog-standard country-rock that Pavement would later flirt with again on Wowee Zowee.
Pavement never lost their weirdness, they just toned it down for Crooked Rain. ‘Hit The Plane Down’ is a song about shooting a plane down over the desert, with no survivors. It’s morbid, sure, but it’s also another criticism of the way the music industry shoots bands up into the sky, just to drop them, regarding them as ‘little toys’. The song is also just funny for the carelessness of Stephen Malkmus and Kannberg’s vocals; distorted, off-key (though this was never a fear for Pavement), yelps, screams, whatever they could come up with. Another of the ‘weirder’ tracks from Crooked Rain is ‘5-4=Unity’, a positively jazz-worthy instrumental track which is completely out of place in the wider context of Crooked Rain, but is notable just for its ‘chorus’, mixing jazzy and distorted guitar arpeggios with a bright piano.
The best songs come first on Crooked Rain. The one-two combo of ‘Silence Kid’ and ‘Elevate Me Later’ show an evolution from the noise-rock of Slanted And Enchanted into a more melodic formula. Vocals don’t even come in for the first minute of ‘Silence Kid’, but it’s a wonderful minute. The song grinds along for two minutes, before changing again into a heavy-guitar outro. ‘Elevate Me Later’ is one of the best examples of Malkmus’ lyrical genius, never sounding pretentious but veiling his words with heavy metaphor and description. He sings ‘I wouldn’t want to shake their [cinema stars, rock stars] hands / Cause they’re in such a high-protein land’ before ‘So many fortresses and ways to attack’. Malkmus is suspicious of anyone who is a celebrity, but also sees them as easier to pull down from their pedestal once they go into the public eye.
Crooked Rain is the best entry point to Pavement. It’s accessible, but doesn’t dumb itself down too much. Lyrically, Malkmus never lets up, and here by delivering a concise criticism of music at the time, he has, directly or indirectly, made a themed album, rather than Pavement’s other scatterbrained work. A lot of the change in instrumentation is to do with the change from Gary Young to Steve West, whose drumming was a lot more traditional than Young’s. Whilst the expanses of sound are missed, and would hardly make a return ever again, Pavement produced direct songs, instrumentally anyway. Crooked Rain is by no means the full-stop on Pavement, Wowee Zowee is their most diverse record. However, they would never make an album as well-constructed and as balanced as Crooked Rain ever again.