17 October 2009

1997: "I'm an island of such great complexity."


On February 11, 1997, Pavement released their fourth studio album, on Matador, Brighten the Corners.

On April 8, 1997, Sleater-Kinney released their third studio album, on Kill Rock Stars, Dig Me Out.

On June 16 1997, Radiohead released their third studio album, on Parlophone/ Capitol Records, OK Computer.

Sometime probably in early July, out of school and just starting work at my first job- a bagel store franchise called Einstein Brothers Bagels- I bought all three of those records in one stop. 1997 was a really weird year. The new job- where we were all forced, in the days leading up the the grand opening, to stand in a giant circle- it being mostly girls my age (just waiting to turn 16)- and take turns calling out our favorite flavor of Einstein Brother's bagel and then the name of someone else in the circle, pointing to them. Corporate "team building" stuff. There- we know names and favorite bagels. This was my first brush with anxiety as well- the moments leading up to work for the first probably two months were indescribably worrisome to me, every single time. I did make some cool friends- there was Jay, the drummer for a hardcore metal band who, though their name annoyingly escapes me at the moment, had a legit EP and sounded pretty professional (cookie monster vocals aside I guess). Jay could fucking play. He was gigantic, and even though I was easily 6'0" at this point, he towered over me. He played big brother, which included scorched-earth dead-arms that would come unprovoked literally out of nowhere and would be followed by some real shit-eating laughter. There was Mike, the frustrated, rosy-cheeked bad boy baker with eyes that were too close together. There was the other Mike, who was into punk like me. There was this older chick who I pestered because she liked the Beatles and the Pixies. There was Ryan, the badass skater dude who was into Nirvana. Stephanie, who was crazy cute. Sensing a theme here? I was a heat seeking missile for the tiniest bit of music interest. I would pry it loose every time though.

Right down the street from Einstein's was, sitting nestled on each side in one of those little mini-strips of stores littered over parts of Fairfield CT (and elsewhere), Murray's Records- owned and operated by Murray himself, a dead ringer for Patrick Swayze (RIP). I loved Murray's Records like I've loved very few things. I'd first gone because a friend at school had mentioned they had Nirvana bootlegs. All the guys who worked there were really nice, but also really cool. I remember the day Chris Farley died- in late 1997, I had to work at 6 AM and we were all up real early, sort of spooked out by it. Well I was anyway.

I went over on my lunch break after eating ("I'm Tim and I love Chocolate Chip bagels!") and bought my first copy of John Lennon's primal scream masterpiece, Plastic Ono Band. See, the CDs sat in the racks unwrapped, which was fucking incredible for a music nerd like me. I would spend hours there opening CDs I couldn't afford, taunting myself with the artwork and words spread out, tempting, already spending future paychecks almost entirely as they came. I'd just have someone change my check to cash and off I went.

So I brought Plastic Ono Band to the desk and the guy (not Murray, a scruffier, hipper dude I think named John) laughed a knowing laugh- "ah yes, perfect for family gatherings, quiet moments, before you go to bed..." Music nerd humor. I thought that guy was the coolest- they were never condescending.

I don't remember when it was, but it seemed like right around the same time- probably the moment I started picking up music magazines- I kept reading everywhere, in scattered places, about these three bands I'd never heard of who all sounded really exciting. Sleater-Kinney was from Portland, OR and "Rolling Stone" said that, at that time, they were on of the drop-dead best live bands in the world. That piqued my interest big-time (this was back when "Rolling Stone" was occasionally worth reading). The other was the massive amount of attention being given to Radiohead's new album, OK Computer. I didn't know much about Radiohead- their name was was carved into the desk I sat in for Western Civ freshman year of high school- two lines, hyphenated. This was a bit before I'd come to embrace, in specific, Britpop (which is what I assumed Radiohead was) and, more generally, most anything English recorded from 1980 on. I was (and kind of still am) bigger on American independent music. I digress.

But the word on this one was that it was of another stripe. If I'd known, I'd already have been digging on The Bends, because OK was nothing new. But it was new in it's greatness, and how immediately obvious it was.

The last band, the most an overthought of the three when I headed over to Murray's after work that day some time in the early summer of '97, was Pavement. The only thing I remember thinking- from those moments I can recall when I knew of this band but wasn't yet completely in love with it- was that "Rolling Stone" gave their new record, Brighten the Corners, a four-star rating, which was a big deal to me back then (Dig Me Out got four as well, OK the eye-popping five). Such was the fever to buy more music I was under, the more precise my measures of acquiring the best I could find became. I scoured the internet on awful pre-Google and Wikipedia fan sites for lists (this is where my love for lists comes from). Let's say Kurt Cobain tells me in some old interview I find to go fucking listen to Beat Happening right fucking now- I need to know which is the best record, and not some crappy b-sides collection or awful live album (ps- it's Black Candy). This was important stuff. I bought The Rolling Stone Album Guide (and still own an updated copy) and could probably still rattle off some of the rankings. They weren't always right (and are rarely so now), but it was a great, great resource.

"Rolling Stone" also, in this review, made mention of something that should have tipped me off- that Pavement was, at it's core, a fantastic god damn guitar band. They have in common with REM a lot of things- but chief among them is the relationship people have to the respective bands' lyrics- they're often frustrated by their obscurity- though in different ways- and it sort of hangs over what is otherwise brilliant music. Stipe's early works were nearly incomprehensible- probably in that they were likely direct references to things that had meaning to him and him alone (and there's certainly something to that). Malkmus' inscrutability is much more rooted in an arm's length- they get roped into being called "slacker rock" sometimes (the same way Nirvana gets roped into "grunge") in part because of this- there's a quality to SM's lyrics that is very much of that era- slightly sarcastic, seeming to want to really be vulnerable and detached at the same time. Again- that tension. All the great shit has it.

So that's naturally the focus with Pavement, and while I love Alex Ross' "New Yorker" piece on the band following Brighten's release (it's in the Nicene Creeders liner notes and definitely worth checking out)- focusing largely on Malkmus' lyrics. Ross notes how most of them exist only as phonetically pleasing in nature. Their ability to fit so seamlessly into his really unique phrasings, despite being angular and articulate at the same time- like a jigsaw puzzles falling into place. It all tends to lend the somewhat absurdities in the bare recitation of the words some pretty cool new and independent meanings. The way they catch rhythm influences how we interpret it. "Most bands were worrying about tackling a concept album- SM's never written a concept song."

So I bought all these three on a total lark one day- three CDs being a pretty solid chunk of change then and now. Of course, Murray's had punch-cards, so how does that hurt me? Months later I was the proud owner of a free copy of the Who's Live at Leeds.

I play Dig Me Out still- I've put "One More Hour" on a few mixtapes. I remember how cool it felt that I was into some angry female punk band from Oregon. They were catchy fucking songs, all about the inter-band romantic tensions (or so I've read). It also has one of the great album covers ever- a great re-imagining of the Kinks' Kink Kontroversy. I saw them years later in New York, and while I thought "Start Together" or "Oh!" were going to be my favorites, "Words and Guitar" fucking melted my face off like a Garbage Pail Kids card. Like end of Raiders of the Lost Ark style. They really were an amazing live band.

Dig Me Out was an intro to a group I still love to this day, but I don't look at Dig Me Out on quite the same plane as the other two. To me, Dig Me Out was their first really great album, and you can take the cover and the sound as a sort of statement that they were ready to branch their sound out a little more, which was cool. Carrie Brownstein talked about loving Pete Townshend which I could really relate to (I worshipped the Who then). She even had a red SG like me. They were moving away from being a riot grrrl punk group and more towards just being a really great rock band. So I think of this band, I think of the three headed monster that is the "Start Together" single/ One Beat/ The Woods. But Dig Me Out is still the shit, mon freres.

"The other two," though, totally blew my mind. I'm going to take a general pass on the OK Computer thing just because it's been done to death and it's becoming increasingly hard to find new ways to say it's close to perfect. I generally think it takes a long time to feel out where a really great album fits in among other really great albums- you can pick the diamonds out, but it takes time to get them back to the surface to compare to the others. Or something.

Some, though, just burst out and it's obvious. Sgt. Pepper's is the classic example (Patti Smith's stories about staying up all night with "A Day in the Life" the day it came out, Jimi learning the title track over the weekend and killing it live in front of Paul days later), but there's London Calling, Blood on the Tracks, Thriller. They're like Babe Ruth at-bats. You seem them coming down the pipe and you think, "I bet he hits a bomb." And then yeah, he does. He hit fucking 60 that year. OK Computer is a no doubt member of this club. It's a weird list- it's not necessarily the best of the best- some records become richer and more rewarding as you slowly acquire a taste for them. Still, OK Computer, with that catastrophic riff opening up "Airbag" (their most underrated song, I think)- just announced itself. It was the first time I was listening to stuff outside my comfort zone of guitarbassdrumswords, and that it was so rewarding made me excited listen to exponentially weirder, wilder stuff.

The Pavement thing hit me harder though. Those are the years when your favorites come in chiseled in stone. You take to something and, if you really love it, you take to it. Jerry Seinfeld has a great bit about how men dress- you can tell what decade he was like 17 or 18 because that's where his taste in clothing freezes. It's true in a lot of ways with music too, and it's only natural- it's when we're most passionate about nearly anything, and when discovering This New Thing really means something special. So yeah, this is when I found Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pavement, the Velvet Underground, the Stooges. They stuck with me, sue me.

I remember the line, from "Transport is Arranged," where SM says "I vent my spleen at the Lord/ He's so abstract and bored/ Too much milk and honey." I still think that's really funny, but I also remember then, going to school at a Jesuit high school, that this was a dude that probably came from a similar background as me. To this day I don't really know if that's true (where would one go to check on that anyway?), but I immediately identified with him and how he wrote, maybe starting with that line (or the still used "What about the voice of Geddy Lee?..."). I started writing a lot around then, and I wrote songs on my guitar too. All my shit, from this point forward, really read like Pavement lyrics and poetry and all that early-teenage stuff. I liked and read a ton of other stuff, but it was really one of those "if he's doing it, I can do it too" things, owing less to what I thought was his reachable level of talent and more to the personal identification I'd made. I felt like Malkmus and I would be buds. Now I'd probably want to hang with Bob (who is fucking hilarious, let's just be honest. He did a column in one of those old Grand Royal magazines the Beasties put out- came with a bitchin' iron on transfer- on horseracing, which he is an avid follower and participator in).

The guitars on this album are, to a guitar-sound junkie such as myself- almost orgasmic. SM and Spiral Stairs are right there with Thurston and Lee as my favorite guitar duos ever. Pavement produced all their own records (save for OK Computer fifth Beatle/ producer Nigel Godrich), and their sound slowly evolved in it's own way with each one. Say whatever you want about the rest of it, Brighten is the best sounding Pavement record. This is the sound I think of (along with a couple other scattered records) when I think of whatever I'd call a "perfect sound," in a tortured sort of way. The little middle boogie on "Embassy Row," the fucking rawk part on "Transport is Arranged," the dueling Velvet strums on the "Qasar in the mist/ the kaiser has a cyst" line from "Stereo." The way this record sounds is how I want records to sound. Especially after the '02 remaster.

And while Brighten does not rank high amongst their five studio albums, there are some things to consider along with this. All five Pavement albums are capital-G Great. The first two are in the hall of fame, Wowee is the one the hardcore fans (me) gush over, and Terror Twilight has some of their strongest songwriting. So where Brighten ultimately places along that list is largely irrelevant anyway. In addition to this, Brighten's material is the work that translates best live- "Type Slowly" became, with "And Then (the Hexx)" (a Brighten-era song that ended up on Terror Twilight), one of their guitar freak-outs- where SM and Spiral would get to spin their web of chord shapes and bouncing harmonies. "This next song is called 'Fin,' EFF-EYE-ENNN... like a shark!" Malkmus says this before the band plays a gorgeous version of the song from the Record Store exclusive live album Live Europaturnen MCMXCVII. It makes me laugh every time. He says it so strangely. Stuart Berman from Pitchfork wrote, in a great write up after the reissue, that "Fin," the album's closer, was "among the most affecting in the band's catalogue", and that while it signified really for the first time the next phase of the Malkmus Sound as it were (thicker, fuzzier, drawn out post-punk jams- and a cool twist: drummer Janet from Sleater-Kinney plays with singer/ guitarer SM from Pavement now in the Jicks), it also marked the end of goofball Pavement. Except for the "Carrot Rope" video, obviously.

(I love Wowee Zowee unconditionally, but I am more excited to hear "Type Slowly," "Transport is Arranged" or "The Hexx" than I am anything from that record (when I see them live and my head explodes next September, that is). Well, "Fight this Generation" would be cool. Whatever, I'll move on.)

I got really into Brighten, then soon bought Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain really close together. Slanted was an early favorite, but Crooked has won out all these years. That album is just the best. Recorded on 30th St. right above Rogue Music (and not in fucking California).

Later that summer my grandfather died, and I turned 16. It was really sad, but I started feeling really creative, and Pavement was a huge part of that for me. I used to turn my room into a recording studio and rock the fuck out, dubbing over myself four or five times, building up sounds with my guitar. It was fun. I've looked everywhere for those "albums" I recorded (I remember the names of all three of them) on tape, but I can't find them anywhere. The first one, the one I recorded summer of 1997, probably sounded a lot like Slanted and Enchanted (but by a 15 year old who couldn't really play a guitar) crossed with the first Ramones record (but by a 15 year old who couldn't really write songs) and a generous helping of Nirvana (but by a 15 year old armed with a $4 microphone from Sam Goody and a boombox), which was more or less the ketchup of my musical diet- I had it with everything. I called it Plastic/ Electric, which I still like.

Everybody that's read this far probably has a year they remember, almost a romantic one with music- where everything feels so great and sky-high and you can't get enough of any of it. There were a lot of other great albums released that year too- Shellac's Terraform; Belle & Sebastian's breakout, If You're Feeling Sinister, Ween's classic The Mollusk; Mike Watt's Contemplating the Engine Room; Elliott Smith's best record, either/ or; my favorite rap single of all time, Wu Tang Clan's "Triumph;" Yo La Tengo's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One; Dylan's epic Time Out of Mind; "Spin" Magazine Album of the Year, Cornershop's When I Was Born for the 7th Time; Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating Through Space; Mogwai's Young Team; Blur's Blur (their "Pavement-y" sounding album, with "Song 2," which may or may not be about Bob Nastanovich); Bjork's Homogenic; Built to Spill's Perfect From Now On- of course, the Foo Fighters' The Colour and the Shape- I really loved the Foo Fighters then (they also reissued the Smithsonian Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, which is in-fucking-credible).

If you remember, this was when everyone was supposed to be listening to "electronica," which more or less fractured into a millions smaller (and ultimately really cool) parts on arrival and never happened like everyone was saying it would. It was also the start of the Spice Girls, which, in the wake of the grunge and alternative late-decade swoon, reaffirmed the audience and viability of R&B/ dance based pop music. From there came the NSYNCs and Backstreets on the bad end and the influence of early Michael Jackson through the emerging hip hop thing on the good end (bringing us close to where we are now, with most rock music still basically absent as a consistent presence on pop charts).

All of which obscured what was a pretty great year for new music.

(I had a similar feeling in 1999, my first year in college in New York, going to the movies. My friend Bill and I saw almost literally everything- I was really interested in movies then, and it turned out to be a sensational year- a whole ten years ago, and a handful of full fledged classics. I feel lucky for those things.)

Murray's closed down a couple years later- obviously a dying breed. I got to relive my record store fetish by working at one for three years in college. A whole other ball of wax: the music of '01/'02...

Pavement- "Fin" live from, I believe, '97.



Pavement- "Stereo" a pretty crappy music video, but some funny Bob stuff and West in a Civil War outfit. Plus, the "I know him, and he does." Priceless.



Sleater-Kinney- "Words and Guitar" live at CBGB's, 1997



Radiohead- "Airbag" live on Jools Holland, 1997

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