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“Noting How Wowee Zowee Marked a Major Breakthrough in Song Structure for Pavement”

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Just sitting and listening to my Pavement playlist last night, the thought was overwhelming in my head: nobody does song structure like these guys. It was like something that had existed in the back of my mind but had been buried by all of the putrid adherences to staunch formula we hear on the radio, and, almost, my ultimate concession to that formula and impetus to conform my brain to it. 

Now, just to get this out there, I think my favorite Pavement album is still Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (though I have been known to slow Wowee #1 on this site before). It glides along so blissfully on the wheels of “Stop Breathin’”; “Cut Your Hair”; “Gold Soundz” and “Range Life,” that is, that it pretty much lunges over the top by way of classic pop songs alone. It’s arguable at best that Wowee has any songs as good as any of these, or even “Heaven is a Truck”: you could perhaps make a case for “Half a Canyon,” in all its multifarious mania, anyway.

But on this playlist I was going for a certain kind of vibe so I actually forewent what had been my three favorite cuts on side A of Wowee: “Black out”; “Grounded” and “Father to a Sister of Thought.” In their stead waltzed in bad dinner guests like “Best Friend’s Arm,” which opens with this furious gaggle of vocal vituperation the most off-putting thing since perhaps the last half-minute of Ween’s “Don’t Laugh (I Love You).” Now, what the band and Malkmus were trying to accomplish with this technique remains a little unclear to me, I must say, but it does cater toward the nice effect of that latter half mantra part of “Keep it under your best friend’s arm” absorbing this kind of placid denouement facet, like a resolution through chaos, or an action followed by an equal and opposite reaction, to use Newtonian terms. Another notable thing about that latter segment, and which fits into the overall point of this post, is that it materializes as a sort of counterpoint to the rest of the song. Where most bands, at the 50-60% mark, would be inserting a guitar solo, or maybe a removal of the percussion, or some other segment to be ultimately subservient to the rest, Pavement, here, institutes what’s essentially the climax of the song. It’s sort of like a chorus, except that it hasn’t appeared anywhere prior, and it totes the song’s central theme with a sort of limitless temporal segment (they could jam that part out 10 minutes and none of the concertgoers would probably complain) that constitutes an innovative maneuver in structure, hence earmarking why many claim them to the best band of the ’90s. 

A couple of other important moves in structure on Wowee Zowee (1996), Pavement’s third album, are “Fight This Generation” and “Half a Canyon,” which I mention before as the one cut on this album able to rival that quadrifecta on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. As far as I can surmise, though, Crooked Rain and Slanted & Enchanted neither had any songs that unfurled with such creative, oblong structures as to emphasize the second half of song as something not only climactic but also sovereign and central to the song’s overall theme. Both “Fight This Generation” and “Half a Canyon” do just this and in fine form at that, with warm, liquidy production and of course those crazy treated and fu**ed vocals in “Canyon” that certainly evoke a “Wild Wild West” type of motif. 

Short of proceeding any more down this tenuous path of “explanation,” where the words seem to shed meaning like loose guitar strings, I’ll just remark in closing that this permutation on the componential anatomy of a song, while perhaps not paramount to Pavement’s overall skill set, is ultimately important for one intriguing, perhaps ironic reason. This, in turn, would be that in a sense it begat the mighty, mountainous songwriting psychosis of Real Emotional Trash (2008), the second Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks album. Real Emotional Trash is an album I’d probably qualify as classic, just as, most likely, every Pavement album except Terror Twilight [1]. It’s got great pop songs like opener “Dragonfly Pie”; “Cold Son” and “Baltimore” [2], but what will really stick in your craw, if you’re a fan of big, glorious rock songs, or “prog,” if that’s a term you’re into in a minutely guileless way, are track two, “Hopscotch Willie”; and track four, the title track. “Hopscotch Willie” is a twisted, relentless tale about a murderer, with this bizarre and awesome almost childlike cadence in the middle of “Do a little hopscotch / Willie hopscotch / Do a little Willie hopscotch / Willie hopscotch” [3], and then the astonishing hilarious observation at the resolution of “Willie was found not far from the scene / He was pantin’ like a pit bull minus the mean”. 

The title track, then, “Real Emotional Trash,” track four, sidles along pretty similarly, really, deliberate and methodical to then, halfway in or so, subsume within a tempo augmentation, and gallop home at this increased speed. In this way, both tracks are in a sense similar to those Wowee Zowee numbers, which unveiled the song’s true DNA, or at least their primary mission statements, more than halfway through. But with a robust, bulbous structure and guitar solo, and unfettered lyrics that seem to bespeak an almost Kerouackian level of freedom and sangfroid as well as coy irony, “Real Emotional Trash” seems like the song that Stephen Malkmus had been waiting his whole career to write (perhaps requiring a drummer as dynamic and rubber-armed as Janet Weiss, all the while), and so, phenomenologically speaking, has Wowee Zowee in part to thank for its mastadon artistic and anatomical stature. 

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[1] Before you bite my head off please let me express my adoration for multiple songs on this LP (“You are a Light”; “Cream of Gold”; “The Hexx”; etc.).  

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[2] Please allow me to take yet another topical excursion and emphasize the cold, merciless second-person rancor of “Baltimore,” which always, perhaps unfortunately, makes for an intriguing listen, for me. 

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[3] Sorry to any hopscotch completists out there if I butchered that one… I’d feel pretty nerdy googling those lyrics.