November 4, 2004

A Ten-Year Reign

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I concede that, occasionally, I have been known to exalt 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain as the greatest album of the 1990s. (OK, fine, I spray the album’s name on t-shirts and kick people who disagree with me.) Regrettably, in certain indie-rock circles, this is not a very extraordinary choice; it’s analogous to a stoner selecting The Chronic. But that’s exactly the point: Crooked Rain is the apex and archetype of an entire genre, glancing backwards to classic rock mythology and vintage college-punk attitude while discarding or developing any superfluities. It swears allegiance to Husker Du and Led Zeppelin while establishing the wry, wistful melancholia that endlessly duplicated itself for scores of indie albums in the ’90s. By any standard, this detailed reissue is as valuable and necessary as any album in the rock canon.

After 1992’s Slanted & Enchanted, Pavement was hailed as collegiate pop masterminds. Stephen Malkmus would claim the band had no aspirations towards any “punk” sound on the album, but the band must have been oblivious to this stated position: Feedback shards and scowling riffs surrounded some of the most delightful choruses of the American underground.

Crooked Rain was a complete departure, abstaining from any willed lo-fi posturing. It gets everything that’s right about “indie rock” without any of the pratfalls that term usually entails: Malkmus’ lyrics are intelligent, enigmatic, and charismatic without any pretension; the songs are hilarious and strange, satirical without any maliciousness or apathy. Musically, it intentionally invokes the lolling independence of a West Coast road-trip. From the oscillating coda of “Stop Breathin'” through the faux-prog blaze of “5-4 = Unity” and the Ashbery-quoting, Lollapalooza-hating effortlessness of “Range Life,” Crooked Rain condenses every mood at once without sounding the least bit contrived or overprocessed. For the Crooked Rain novice, this must sound like hyperbole. It’s not. Aristotle thought happiness consisted of prudence and temperance. Fuck him. True happiness is this album, a ’79 El Camino, a Pacific Coast Highway, a dead-end office job, and $50,000 in cash.

Now Matador has graciously tripled our happiness with a spellbinding compilation of B-sides, tour EPs, 7”s, and rehearsal tapes, along with a mammoth booklet. With 37 tracks recorded in myriad circumstances, there is no obvious sound or trend. Proceedings range from a chaotic, surprisingly bulky cover of R.E.M.’s “Camera” to the excoriating send-up of indie ethos on “Coolin’ By Sound.” Often, the additional takes of Crooked Rain songs are poorer in quality, but offer an invaluable understanding of the evolution of songwriting: “Range Life” is sped-up and convoluted with tinkering solos, while the vocals on “5-4 = Unity” intentionally turn the song into pure parody.

It’s an exhaustive and essential package that can take days to process. At $15.00, you would have to hate all human endeavors to not buy this immediately.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Sun Arts & Entertainment Associate Editor