They make it seem so simple. So breezy. Like, Oh, we just tossed off the Greatest Indie Rock Album Ever, all before dinner. As if singer-guitarist Stephen Malkmus, multi-instrumentalist Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg (both smart alecks from Stockton, CA) and drummer Gary Young (an older, drunken studio owner) crank out art-rock Jackson Pollocks in their spare time for kicks. But, as Malkmus himself sings on the album's loopy and lackadaisical "Zurich Is Stained": "You think it's easy, but you're wrong."
After listening to Slanted and Enchanted, the debut album from Pavement released 25 years ago (April 20, 1992) today, you'd be forgiven for thinking that you, too, could pick up a guitar, a tape recorder, head for your parents' basement, and make history. It's the sound of ragtag suburban dudes creating a mess of fuzz, feedback, rhythmic ridiculousness, lyrical loop-de-loos, and detuned guitar riffs, right? Yet it has become, perhaps, the most revered LP in the genre -- a touchstone that has aged far better than its contemporaries, sounding as fresh today as it did upon its release.
In late 1990 and early '91, when Malkmus presented the songs to be recorded in their hippie drummer's garage studio for a laugh, the expectations were to reach the indie rock minor leagues, maybe. But Slanted and Enchanted is one of those lightning-in-a-bottle, totally non-formulaic glory moments in music history.
The album is far more than the sum of its parts -- there's something extra in the ether. "Slanted and Enchanted is probably the best record we made," Malkmus told GQ back in 2010, "only because it's less self-conscious and has an unrepeatable energy about it." #Truth.
By the time the album dropped, Nirvana's Nevermind was in the top 10 of the Billboard 200, and grunge music -- in all its flannelled, druggy angst -- was riding high in mainstream pop culture. Pavement were the outsiders, but Slanted and Enchanted -- named after a cartoon by Silver Jews frontman David Berman, a college pal of Malkmus' -- has arguably influenced as many artists (and probably of better quality) than the more commercially successful Nevermind.
Pavement had already garnered acclaim for a string of singles on its own and via Chicago's Drag City label, but Slanted and Enchanted was different. It opens with one of indie rock's quintessential tracks, "Summer Babe," a noisy yet gentle jangle-pop tune about a summer crush, conjuring images of a sun-kissed girl "mixing cocktails with plastic-tipped cigars" as Malkmus' "eyes stick to all her shiny robes." It closes with a call-and-response chorus and wailing about "waiting, waiting, and waiting" for his summer babe. Like the whole album, it's a messy balancing act between raw and melodic.
On Slanted and Enchanted, the trio attempted to, as Malkmus has said, "Californize" the edgier indie rock underground -- The Fall, Sonic Youth, Big Black, R.E.M., et al. They filtered it via the familiar suburban sounds of '70s AM rock and their vintage rock n' roll icons, including Lou Reed, Buddy Holly, and Jimi Hendrix, who Malkmus mimicked to learn how to play guitar. Their melodies are alluring, the production is hyper lo-fi, and their playing nonchalant to the point of fluid -- just look at Malkmus shredding guitar; Young was a clattering wreck with trouble keeping rhythm, but was, in a sense, a spiritual and rhythmic juju for the overall vibe. It's stripped to the essentials, creating an urgency, like you're sitting on the shag carpet at their feet, watching and listening amid the warm hum of amplifiers. And across the LP's 14 songs, Malkmus' lyrics are quirky and abstract, but with enough storytelling and tenderness to melt hearts and ignite minds.
Boasting scattered la-la-las and chugging squall, "Trigger Cut" is another highlight with Malkmus' cut-and-paste lyrics about "lies and betrayals" and "fruit-covered nails," and, finally, his yearning plea for "eeeeeeeee-lectricity and lust." "Perfume-V" is art-rock meets Tom Petty with its gliding back-and-forth vocals, slicing guitars, and open-road chorus: "She's got the radioactive," Malkmus sings, "It makes me feel okay… I don't feel okay."
There's the beautifully squirrely, meandering guitar melodies of the aforementioned "Zürich Is Stained"; the across-the-spectrum fuzz of "Loretta's Scars," closing on one of the LP's most memorable lines: "From now on, I can see the sun… From now on I can see the sun, I can see the sun!!!" "Two States" is a playful chug-a-lug and "No Life Singed Her," especially its blasting roller coaster of an opening, is the album's kick-down-the-door sneer.
Their unique amalgamation of sound is perhaps best exemplified in "Here" and "In the Mouth a Desert," arguably the LP's two best track. "Here" has twinkling high notes nodding to both Holly and Reed's Velvet Underground and lyrics that resonate with the band's minions of young, confused fans: "I was dressed for success / But success it never comes," Malkmus deadpans. "And I'm the only one who laughs / At your jokes when they are so bad." Malkmus, sounding exhausted, claws for a final high note: "We guess… a guess is the best I'll do."
"In the Mouth a Desert," another twinkling noise-pop ditty filtered through Reed/Holly fandom, opens with a fuzzy but melodically simple riff, then crashes as Malkmus spits, "Can you treat it like an oil well, when it's underground, out of sight?" It's abstract but memorable, and the song builds over shards of electric guitar fuzz. Malkmus and Kannberg trade lines -- "It's what I want / It's what I want" -- then Malkmus takes the lead, pleading in rising intensity: "I've been crowned, the king of it / And it is all we have so wait…"
Rock stars, especially those of the early-'90s, were mythical icons -- fragile, moody, mysterious, artistic, untouchable. Martyrs, gods even... or so the story line went. But Malkmus and Pavement created the quintessential American indie-rock album via an inverse path, offering many a music fan a far more recognizable leading man: a suburban smart ass with floppy hair, who flipped burgers and drank beers in high school, and later attended his insurance salesman father's alma matter. He was a punk with a tender heart and wise cracks. And with that slacker 'tude in the lead, Pavement repackaged the avant-noise of the indie elite into playful hooks with all shades of feedback, distilling the magic of early-20-somethings, carelessly jamming with no aims beyond living in that moment. It's the definitive document of what makes indie rock, indie rock.