Ch. #25 – “Slacker Rock”

 

As I’m writing these words I have just gone on my summer vacation and will be spending the couple of weeks slacking off, recharging the ol’ batteries and hopefully catch some rays. That said, I’m only taking vacation from my day job and not from this here blog. There is no off time from New Year’s wows.

While it’s itching in my fingers to do a minor freak out about two of the albums I have been looking forward the most so far this year; the comeback records of both The Raconteurs and The Black Keys, “Help Us Stranger” and “Let’s Rock“, another band, song and topic had to proceed them today.

With thought about chilling, slacking and mellow out orbiting my mind the last few days given my impending vacation I have also unsought been thinking about another gem of a band from the 90s; Pavement.

Saddle up partner, today we’ll be digging some Slacker Rock.

Ah, Pavement. Another cult classic band that came up during the sprawling Alt-Rock landscape of the 1990s. Although I’d argue they share a fair amount of sounds, forebearers and attitude as many of the other 90s acts of the time and certainly those that I have brought up before on this blog, they do have a quite distinct vibe that sets them apart from most of their contemporaries.

How would I describe that vibe you ask? Well, really lo-fi, loose and laid back yet with bunch to say. They quickly got the epithet “slackers” and their sound “Slacker Rock” by contemporary journalist and music critics, a reference to the indie comedy cult classic film “Slacker” from 1990, which perceived characterization of Generation X kids and young adult was pretty spot on with the sound and appearance of the band. This tag isn’t entirely fair though, as primary songwriter and vocalist Stephen Malkmus and the rest of the band would again and again refute. The sound and image of themselves and the band was cultivated not by a lack of trying, i.e. “slacking”, but rather there was serious effort and intent behind it.

Chances are fairly high that you who are reading this have never heard of Pavement or have only heard about them in passing. And that wouldn’t be so strange, as band during their heyday barely crossed over to the mainstream in the 1990s. They made a brief appearance on the hot charts with their “almost-hit” “Cut Your Hair” in 1994 but remained mostly an underground band that only people in the know knew about.

Commercial successful or not, they remain a highly influential band that more widely popularized than any band before the sound and vibe what is commonly referred to as “Slacker Rock” today. Many bands would later pick up Pavement’s lo-fi aesthetic like Brit-Popers Blur already later in the same decade, and nowadays acts like Courtney Barnett, Mac DeMarco and Kurt Vile are clearly channeling the same vibe.

The newcomers to Pavement’s 1994 album “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain“, which name suggest a possible homage to Prince‘s “Purple Rain“, is about as good of a starting point you’ll have. “Cut Your Hair” is from this album, and also my pick for today, “Range Life“. The latter song really drives home most of the aspects to what I attribute Pavement with; lo-fi, laid back and chill instrumentals, offset arrangements and progressions, all paired with lyrics that for most part makes perfect sense because they don’t make any sense at all.

More concretely, “Range Life” has this laid back hybrid of faux-Surf Rock and Country thing going on with the instrumentals while Malkmus soliloquies a lament over his current life situation while yearning for a more simple life. Something someone, like I don’t myself, who is taking a break from his’ or hers’ mortal coil can easily relate to. Therefore it has been a go-to song for me when I’m about to or just have gone on vacation that just always seems to find it’s way in my song queue.

Before I wrap up for today I just want to offer one final juicy tidbit on what makes “Range Life” additionally remarkable and rememberable in books of popular music history; the third verse of the song. The third verse takes a bit of a left turn in attitude compared to the song leading up to this verse. From being almost exclusive introspective up until and including the second chorus Malkmus seemingly take some rather brash potshots at 2 of Pavement’s contemporary Alt-rock band back in the 90s; The Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots:

Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins
Nature kids, I/they don’t have no function
I don’t understand what they mean
And I could really give a fuck
The Stone Temple Pilots,
They’re elegant bachelors
They’re foxy to me
Are they foxy to you?
I will agree
There isn’t absolutely nothing
Nothing more than me
Dreamin’ dream dream dream

— Stephen Malkmus

Back in 1994 Billy Corgan and his fellow bandmates of the Smashing Pumpkins took such offense of these few lines of lyrics on “Range Life” that they lobbied management behind the 1994’s edition of Lollapalooza to drop Pavement from the bill of artists to play the festival, which The Smashing Pumpkins were also billed to play at. People behind the Pumpkins denies that this didn’t happen, but what we do know is that Pavement ultimately didn’t end up playing the festival in 1994, but instead appears the following year instead…

In several interviews since Malkmus has explained that the brash lyrics had been interpreted too directly, and that the lyrics was more of a general cathartic, self-loathing remark of what he saw in and perceived of the current state of rock music and the rock icons of the era. The scope of this remark didn’t exclude himself nor Pavement themselves either. With all facts in hand and looking back at the decade in retrospect, did Malkmus have a fair point you think?

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