There’s No Survivors: Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain at 30

On this day in 1994, the Stockton indie heroes put out a slacker masterpiece that toed the line between selling out and knowing your audience, forever transforming the legacy of Matador Records and the decade’s complicated relationship with rock music altogether.

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There’s No Survivors: Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain at 30

Throughout the year, Paste will be looking at the most important album releases from 1994 as they turn 30, from Hole to Nas to Elliott Smith and beyond. This is 1994, She’s in Your Bones, a column of essays dedicated to one of the best years in rock ‘n’ roll history. Read our previous installment, on Green Day’s Dookie here.

I think what makes 1994 such a fascinating point in rock history is how crucial and tumultuous it was for the state of the genre at the time. Kurt Cobain was dead. Pearl Jam began its battle against Ticketmaster. The Eagles got back together. Woodstock ‘94 turned into a bloody mud pit but was successful enough to spawn a horrifically awful sequel. Pink Floyd called it quits. Not to mention, the influx of rock albums released that year represented a high-velocity melting pot of sub-genres and landlocked scenes, including pop-punk, Britpop, industrial, lo-fi, space age and trip-hop, to name a few. Hair metal was over, rap still wasn’t fully indoctrinated into the mainstream quite yet. Country music was starting to get its poptimist sea legs while now-outdated niches like third-wave ska, Eurodance, swing revival and nu-metal were on a cursed uptick. And yet, somehow, someway, the best rock album of 1994 fit into none of those boxes. On Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, a Stockton quintet called Pavement fashioned a slacker masterpiece that toed the line between selling out and knowing your audience.

Like Dookie or the Blue Album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a California album made by a California band, but it isn’t a straightforward coming-of-age, nuanced pastiche of spiraling romance or spiraling body image or spiraling dread like the former two. You have to read in-between the lines of bandleader Stephen Malkmus’ fragmented musings to get to the gist of the record’s impetus, which is a portrait of West Coast suburban boredom spun into hypnotic gold by bored West Coast suburbanites. Malkmus went to the University of Virginia in the mid-1980s and became a disc jockey at the WTJU radio station, joining forces with DJs David Berman and James McNew. Together, along with Bob Nastanovich, they’d experiment with lo-fi rock under the name Ectoslavia before, in 1989, Berman, Malkmus and Nastanovich founded Silver Jews together while McNew would join Yo La Tengo three years later. Malkmus and Berman were storytellers cut from the same cloth, poets who held no interest in delivering the whos, whats, whys and wheres to you on a silver platter. In Pavement and Silver Jews, respectively, Malkmus and Berman ached to show you their story but they didn’t have much interest in telling them.

Pavement hit the ground running in 1989, as Malkmus, Scott Kannberg and Gary Young already had a foot in the door of the industry. Malkmus took up roles in punk bands like Crisis Alert, the Straw Dogs and Bag O Bones in Stockton, while Young was a booking agent in town—who brought groups like the Circle Jerks and Black Flag in for shows—and played in the Fall of Christianity with Brian Thalken. Kannberg and Malkmus were childhood friends and struck up Pavement under the pseudonyms Spiral Stairs and SM. Flash-forward to 1991 and bassist Mark Ibold and multi-instrumentalist Nastanovich are welcomed into the fold and, in 1992, they put out their first LP, Slanted and Enchanted, on a young label called Matador Records (and, across the pond, Big Cat helped get the songs in front of the right people).

Slanted and Enchanted became a landmark lo-fi album of its time, though it wasn’t nearly as lo-fi as anything by bands like Guided By Voices or Speaking Canaries or, really, anything that Scat Records or Shimmy Disc were putting out in the late 1980s, early 1990s (nor was it trying to be). What Slanted and Enchanted had, however, was accessibility. Matador was quickly becoming a hub for a burgeoning indie rock world, and they helped debut bands like Railroad Jerk, Teenage Fanclub and Superchunk and, the year after Pavement’s introduction, they delivered Liz Phair to the world via Exile in Guyville. This didn’t mean that Pavement was suddenly on Nirvana’s level, no. Slanted and Enchanted couldn’t hold a candle, commercially, to Nevermind, but it got the attention of The Village Voice and SPIN, among other publications—many of whom praised Pavement’s noise and complexities. The band were silent torchbearers.

In that regard, Pavement had to be absolutely perfect on their next turn; their second album was going to be a make-or-break moment for them—there was no chance that another Slanted and Enchanted was going to move the dial again, so the expectations were massive. The band replaced Gary Young with Steve West and took to Random Falls Studio in New York City and Louder Than You Think back in Stockton to lay down their sophomore effort between August and September 1993. When they emerged from recording, they did so with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, an album that brandished an anodyne amalgam of R.E.M. and the Meat Puppets.

Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine labeled it “the Reckoning to Slanted and Enchanted’s Murmur” and he’s correct, but only if that, too, is an acknowledgement of Reckoning being better than Murmur. The 12 songs were sleek (well, as sleek as an underground rock record could be) and jangly, and Pavement tinged it with a twangy polish and pop finesse without fully abandoning its own propensity for distortion pedals. But, even then, things didn’t change all that much between the albums. Where Slanted and Enchanted charmed with its collaged, maddening lyrics and The Fall-inspired, dissonant instrumentation, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain got drunk on catchiness, wise-cracking one-liners and a lyrical obliqueness outmuscled by guitar work rinsed in vibrancy that still managed to sound unkempt and chaotic.

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (once almost titled Wig Out At Jagbags) is a record I love revisiting because of Malkmus’ erudite lyricism alone. Few of the songs make any narrative sense, and that’s why I gravitate towards them. “Charge it like a puzzle, hitmen wearing muzzles,” he sings on “Cut Your Hair.” “Hesitate, you die. Look around, around, the second drummer drowned. His telephone found!” There’s a real Richard Brautigan type of absurdity going on, in that Malkmus cuts his teeth on throwing quick-witted, emotional one-liners in-between absolute gibberish. One of the sweetest instances of such an exercise comes in “Gold Soundz,” when he sings “So drunk in the August sun and you’re the kind of girl I like, because you’re empty and I’m empty. And you can never quarantine the past.” Elsewhere, the “underneath the fake oil burning lamps in the city we forgot to name” line in “Elevate Me Later” vibrates all the same.

Malkmus’ writing about rich archetypes still managed to cut through his esoteric smoke-screen, too, as he imagined a Civil War on a tennis court in “Stop Breathin” and bemoaned the galavanting musicians who “range-rov[e] with cinema stars” in “Elevate Me Later.” And then, on “Range Life,” Malkmus taunted the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots, denouncing the latter as “foxy,” elegant bachelors; on “Heaven Is A Truck,” he even gender-bended ever so slightly, singing about getting tied up after someone loosens his dress (but not until he laments that sharks don’t have wings). When “Unfair” collapses into you, the “you film hack, I don’t use your fade” line makes nonsensical sense. Even at his most evasive, Malkmus manages to tap a hammer on the right reflexes.

I wasn’t alive when Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain came out, and I wish I could even say that I discovered it before graduating high school. But it wasn’t until my freshman year in college, in 2016, when I got really stoked on Camp Cope’s eponymous debut. Bandleader Georgia Maq’s username on Instagram was a nod to “Gold Soundz,” and I became immediately curious about the origins. One Google search later and I was knee-deep in Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, losing my grasp on reality hearing the quasi-jazz, non-sequitur group jam at the end of “Fillmore Jive.” It was my first real crash-course on the era that came after Nevermind, and it would take me years to fully open up to the rest of Pavement’s catalog. But Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain transfixed me like few other albums ever have, as I poured over “Range Life” like it was the greatest song ever made (catch me on the right day and I’ll probably still argue for that being true). It’s the moment where Pavement became Pavement and, if they hadn’t gone on to make three more records together over the next five years and just called it quits right then and there, I think we’d still be talking about them just as seriously as we are right now.

Upon its release, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain found similar successes as its predecessor. Rolling Stone threw four stars at it, SPIN dropped a 9.0 in its review. The Village Voice deemed the album an “A,” while NME and Select labeled it with high-praise acclaim. The way the record so distinctively took the best of both worlds—burgeoning rock tropes that flirted with commercial overlap and a poised determination to remain as underground as humanly possible—Pavement were able to level up without selling out, retaining their indie cards by singing about tennis, taking the piss out of their alt-rock peers and shredding with a level of grace that few bands of the era, or ever, have really been able to siphon magic from. It’s an album that’s landed recognizable influence on contemporary bands like Speedy Ortiz, Horsegirl, Nada Surf, Superorganism and, recently, Wednesday. While Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain never cracked the Top 100 of the Billboard 200 or snagged any certifications in the United States in its heyday, it’s sold 500,000 copies since 1994 and “Cut Your Hair” hit the Top 10 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart and received critical airplay on the radio and MTV.

But good grades and cult buzz don’t generate commercial mirages. Even Nastanovich has gone on record saying that Rolling Stone putting multiple Pavement records on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list is a peculiar thing, and that those records have to be “the two or three worst-selling records on that list.” It’s a reason why Gary Young quit after the band toured for Slanted and Enchanted: The album sold decently well, but the band wasn’t cashing in on the post-Nevermind industry explosion and getting offered multi-million-dollar label contracts. But Pavement never saw themselves as being on the same path as Nirvana, so I doubt they would have even given much consideration to signing on any dotted line. They mixed Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain for $50 an hour at Baby Monster Studios; they dissed Billy Corgan and Scott Weiland’s bands because they were cocky yet understood they weren’t “better” than those bands. Pavement stuck with Matador, took acts they liked on tour with them and never fully embraced press routines or interview personas.

And, when Pavement played the main stage on the West Virginia date of Lollapalooza’s 1995 tour, the crowd pummeled the band with rocks and mud—forcing them to end the set early. Even now, as we consider Malkmus and co.’s peak to be one of viable rock heroism that is responsible for the existence of bands like Destroyer, the Shins and Animal Collective, it’s miraculous that Pavement even got one foot off the ground 30 years ago—as the guitar rock that spawned from the alt-world built up by the Replacements and Sonic Youth and Swell Maps was firmly on the outs, and Pavement seemed pretty unbothered by industry pressures to climb the ladder anyway. Even when their venture deal for major-market distribution of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain through Warner and Atlantic fell apart, they were quite copacetic about the whole ordeal.

But then again, what the hell do I know? Pavement got interviewed by MTV, played “Cut Your Hair” on The Tonight Show, toured the world a few times with bands like Guided By Voices and were featured on rotation at KROQ in Los Angeles (a massive gesture 30 years ago, mind you). Those are all measures of success—or, at least they were once upon a time ago. What indie rock means in 2024 is much different than what indie rock meant in 1994. Take boygenius, for example: After Matador put out their debut EP in 2018, they ditched the mothership last year to work with Interscope—one of the wealthiest labels in all of the world—on their debut LP. And yet, the record wound up on year-end “best indie albums” listicles at multiple publications.

With Pavement, though, there’s never been any doubt as to whether or not they were crucial to the contemporary face of indie rock or remain as such, let alone whether or not they were an indie rock band to begin with. When they made Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, there was an intentionality behind making guitar-oriented music even if its own lights were dimming in the wake of pop’s chart chokehold and rap’s forthcoming mainstream explosion. Pavement didn’t make it out of the 1990s (and rock music barely did), instead hanging up the name after touring their then-recently released Terror Twilight the year after I was born.

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is not a textbook perfect album but, spiritually, it certainly is. It’s a 10/10 with imperfections that emphasize the emboldened bullet points rather than muddy them. Pavement could have so easily fucked it up and squandered their post-Slanted and Enchanted momentum, but they didn’t. And, as hindsight shines more and more light on how close alternative music was to the brink of death in a post-Nirvana era, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain becomes even more miraculous and significant—as we continue to better understand how its grasp towards a near-extinct rock stardom was, perhaps in 1994, never supposed to be this influential. Maybe rock music did die back then. If so, then Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain bid it adieu and Pavement danced on its ashes.

30 years later, however, no one is arguing against Pavement’s musical immortality. Hell, in the early 2000s, there was very little uncertainty as to whether or not the crop of left-of-the-dial bands and rock revival-adjacent acts emerging from nepotism and DIY scenes across the US were pulling influence from Stephen Malkmus, Scott Kannberg, Mark Ibold, Steve West and Bob Nastanovich. And just look at their song “Harness Your Hopes,” a Brighten the Corners B-side that, through the power of recent TikTok virality, has become their most-streamed song on all platforms (it has more than 80 million more streams than the #2 song, “Cut Your Hair”)—generations are still discovering the joys of jam kids on their vespas and ladies who need cold advice about a few things, even as discourse around there being “no real rock stars” anymore rages on. It’s a new millennium and Pavement have long outrun their own predictions about fate. As Kannberg sings near the end of “Hit the Plane Down”: “There is no survivors.” Wherever he and the band are on this Valentine’s Day, I imagine they are happy to have been wrong.

Watch Stephen Malkmus perform “Range Life” and “Heaven Is a Truck” at the Great American Music Hall in 2009 below.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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