Pavement – Wowee Zowee


Let’s let Mark Prindle break the ice:

”Critics panned this, fools that they are. Can you believe the NERVE of THEY!?!?

It’s all slow. No more dreams of being the next Nirvana. Only dreams of making the beautiful music they know they’re capable of making. No upbeat “Cut Your Hair” stuff, except for a few short novelty rockers thrown in for fun. Eighteen songs strong, most of them winners. The best guitar work yet. The best production yet. Bye bye, low fye. Extremely full and thickly textured. Beautiful guitar tones, melodies and vocals. Entirely unannoying. Perfect sound 4-eva! Well-written, well-executed. A goddamn should-be classic. You find me a piece of guitar interplay lovelier than that at the beginning and end of “Grounded” and I’ll offer you a cookie. Find me an extended drone jam more mesmerizing than the one in “Half A Canyon” and I’ll grant you a warm handshake. The short ones are funny (not dumb, and not expendable… okay, maybe “Brinx Job” is expendable), and the long ones are gorgeouser than an ocean tree. Fifer.”

Sure, we can lift the best tracks out of Wowee Zowee – you could probably guess which ones these are based on the track times alone – and make an EP out of it, but newsflash! You could say that about every other album ever made. (Basically.) On the other hand, what cannot be said about every other album ever made is that Wowee Zowee works as an album. Which is odd because there’s no narrative to Wowee Zowee; the tracklist feels like Pavement just shuffled up the tracks and dealt them. Most any other artist would’ve thrown “We Dance” as the closer and opened with something with a little more “oomph”, like “Rattled by the Rush.” But not only does the album’s disregard for structural integrity jell well with Pavement’s slacker vibe, but Wowee Zowee ends up with a manic quality that you just don’t hear from any other album. Perfection from its imperfection, if I were being poetic; their second best album.

”We Dance” is deceptive. At first glance, it seems like little more than a steel acoustic guitar number with a somber Malkmus on vocals—the sort of somberness that occurs after you’ve sobered up mid-party, once you realized drinking till your trashed is just a waste of time (to quote Elliott Smith’s doctor), or you realized you’re just drinking to get away from the crushing loneliness but no one really does—I’m getting off track here. There’s a lot going on for such a simple song, and despite the fact that we all think of Pavement as a group who enjoyed playing guitars only if there was a beer or joint in the room, they’re not really slackers at all. There’s the lonely piano pings that open the track. There’s the glass that’s being filled at the 0:35 mark in the left channel, under the repeated lyric, “We’ll dance…” (you can practically hear the ellipses). Like the best Pavement songs, “We Dance” encompasses a lot of emotions in a short period of time, and if you made a list of similar songs, I assure you that list would be very short.Malkmus moves from abstraction (“Pick out some Brazilian nuts / For your engagement / Check that expiration date, man / It’s later than you think”) to poignancy (“We dance… / But no one will dance with us”) to a mix of both (“There is no castration fear,” pronounced “feah” in his faux-British accent) to humour (“Chim chim chim sing a song of praise”) all in the span of 3 minutes. Listen to the way he Malkmuses (because yes, this is very much a verb) through the lines “But I won’t be there to leave you / ‘Cause I don’t have a clue” or how everything quiets down for his romantic suggestion, “Maybe we can dance together?” and you get the feeling he’s not saying the words to someone, but rather a memory of someone. 

The album follows with its most technically impressive track (though not my favorite), “Rattled by the Rush.” It sets itself up like any number of Pavement songs, with Stephen Malkmus singing to match the guitar, breaking a line like “Oh, that I could bend my tongue outwards” into “Oh / that I / could bend my tongue / outwards.” On slow, summer days, I swear there’s not much better than singing along to “Rattled”’s lackadaisical hook, “I’m drowning for your thirst” or “I’m rattled by the rush” (if you listen closely, there are even backing vocals that are always a step behind the actual one). The track suddenly erupts into more than just Malkmus and the guitar; adding honking cars stuck in traffic, ululations, ringing alarms and an discordant guitar on top of everything, all sonically cooperating with one another despite the fact that they sound like they’re in a bidding war against each other.

While I had originally written that the you could easily spot the best tracks on the album based off their tracktimes, you’d definitely be missing out on gems. “Black Out” stands out from the other approximately 2-minute tracks on the album with more melodic bend that you’d expect from Pavement; Stephen Malkmus joked that it was “The New ‘Gold Soundz’” while introducing it in live shows. On “Gold Soundz,” I had once played it on a car ride back from the cottage and a girl who was more used to—more commercial music we’ll say—laughed that Stephen Malkmus “can’t sing.” That’s entirely false; he can—at first glance, the way he jumps from falsetto might seem like he’s doing it because he can, but the fact that he makes sure to keep up the same unorthodox melody in other verses is proof otherwise. It’s not “Gold Soundz”—nothing is or ever will be—there’s nothing that’ll hit you as hard as “Drunk in the August sun / And you’re the kind of girl I like / Because you’re empty like I’m empty / And you can never quarantine the past” but Malkmus is on a poetic high on “Black Out;” the rhymes of “The spastic rats / The criminals chat” and “The gauzy thoughts of the sturdy Scots,” or the way he catapults from one verse straight into the next, “Until the lights begin to bleed lights / Until you actually see the rays.” Listen especially to the way he separates the last word into multiple syllables – the prettiest moment on a pretty song on a pretty album – like actual rays of sunshine.

Moreover, because this is Pavement’s album with the most tracks, you get a bit of diversity throughout – that still retains what makes Pavement songs fundamentally Pavement – such that I agree with Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson’s comparing this to the Beatles’ The White Album. And while I’d gladly give Mark Prindle the opening words of my review, I disagree with him on “Brinx Job.” Here, Pavement imitates Ween for 90 seconds, and honestly, it was the first song I loved on the album; there’s just something about Malkmus’ falsetto-ed “We got the money!” that just sticks around. The other short tracks—either “Serpentine Pad”’s anti-corporation lyrics or “Flux=Rad” managing a sizeable crescendo—suggest that Pavement would’ve been one of the best punk bands had they been around a decade and a half earlier.

Everyone knows that “Gold Soundz” is perfect, but “Grounded” is a different kind of the same word. The guitar of the intro and underneath the solo of the outro could be the answer to suburban boredom, while the guitar parts in the middle of the song build up and up before a ruckus of debris before letting it crashing down around you immediately after (you can practically see Malkmus whipping at his guitar to make those noises; I find it funny that one of the ultimate-guitar tabs for “Grounded” has this section labeled “Rock”. Oh, and as you ought to expect by the fifth track on the album, the lyrics don’t slack around either—the way Malkmus’s voice cracks “He never—he never—complains when it’s hot” or “So incomplete! Plete! Please! / Boys are dying in these streets.” 

I think, part of the reason why Wowee Zowee remains divisive amongst fans is because of the lack of a “Gold Soundz” or “Range Life” on this one. I mean, sure, “Rattled by the Rush” and “Father to a Sister of Thought,” Wowee Zowee’s representatives, are both great, don’t get me wrong, but I have a harder time envisioning the general public embracing them (not that they exactly flocked to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain). The latter doesn’t even bother with any semblance of a hook, which suggests that Malkmus had his hands on some really supreme kush when he decided that it was single-worthy, though what’s more worth noting is the pedal steel guitar and how it’s explosive coda (starting at the 3:03 mark) makes for as complete a listening experience as “Range Life” did. Oh, and those first, few seconds recall that of “We Dance.” If they wanted a relatively more successful single, I’d think “Grounded” would’ve done better.

I find it wholly interesting that Oasis will make one of the biggest hits of the 90’s and critics rushed to a line like “Maybe / You’re gonna be the one that saves me” and called Noel Gallagher one of the best songwriters w(hich would stroke his ego for decades to come). Meanwhile, “AT&T,” released six months earlier, basically opens with the same line, but follows it up with the hilarious “My heart is made of gravy,” a rhyme that singlehandedly turns a dime-a-dozen romance into a comedy. And if you want to hear the Malkmus delivering his best, listen to “AT&T,” the shouted “GO!” coming in at the perfect time (in regards to the track and the album), the way Malkmus launches his voice, “Green andbluuuuue,” the way he grabs a line and runs with it like he forgot what the next one was, “I’ll walk the plank for you / I’ll walk the plank / I’ll walk the plank for you” or the way he stutters in the lines sandwiching it, “Whenever / Whenever / When-n-n-n-never I feel fine” and “In the d-d-d-da-dark” (predating the stuttering of “Girl O’Clock” by The Dismemberment Plan), the way he completely drops any pretense of singing to give Jacob Javits a shoutout, the way he just shouts out “WOAH-OH”‘s without really caring about what’s happening around him. Or maybe he cared too much.

I suppose the album’s last two tracks leave a little to be desired: the band isn’t as jammy as they need to be to pull of “Half a Canyon,” though I like the riff, and Scott Kannberg’s closer “Western Homes” ends the album on a wholly unimpressive note, which hides its lack of any ideas in unintelligible vocals. On the other hand, Kannberg’s other offering, “Kennel District,” is wonderful. While he’s no Malkmus, either in terms of vocals or lyrics, those ululations match the guitar perfectly

—– —- —– —– —–

I had spent the majority of my 4.5-year undergrad going from full-time school and part-time work during the school year to full-time work and part-time school during the summers, pissing away whatever money I made on alcohol during the summer weekends to try and live a little. It was fun at first, but it got bored as soon as it became a routine, and I found myself looking forward to school to start again as much as schoolkids looked forward to the summer. The year before I graduated, I discovered this album the way people discover religion on their deathbeds, and I remember telling my friend I just wanted to spin the whole album stoned in my bathtub and her thinking I was batshit insane, or maybe just me thinking she thought that. But it’s like this album understood what I was going through, how terrified I was that without school, my life would become a routine of working and drinking. It did turn out like that, but at least I have my music to go along with.

“Fuck / Fight this generation.”

“Fun, fun, fun (for the summertime blues).”

“I’m drowning for your thirst.”

“Boys are dying on these streets.”

”Maybe we can dance together?”


7 responses to “Pavement – Wowee Zowee

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