Pavement – Wowee Zowee
Pavement – Wowee Zowee (1995)
In 2010 Pavement, who'd broken up in 1999, did a reunion tour. The tour was timed with the release of their best-of collection Quarantine the Past, and it was all a moment of fervor for fans of the band, whose influence is hard to understate, and within the indie world in general. I attended one of the concerts performed at NYC's Central Park bandshell. Though I hadn't been a fan during their heyday and had never seen them perform, the show was everything I'd hoped for it to be – the band crushed it. For the uninitiated, they're known for a particular brand of dry irony – particularly lead man Stephen Malkmus – delivered with the most enviable sangfroid, and this element of their personality was present that night through and through. And the music was stellar.
At some point during the show, another concertgoer, not far from where I stood a dozen or so yards from center stage, yelled out something to the effect of "let's get a little 'Serpentine Pad'!" Snickering sounds were heard among the nearby audience. It was an obvious joke. "Serpentine Pad" is the sixth track on Wowee Zowee and it's quite a long shot from anything I imagine fans who'd been waiting a decade for this heaven-sent performance would care to devote a precious second of it to, much less the 80 or so that would be required to perform the song in its entirety. The song is an abrasive fuzz-pedal slap to the face, with Malkmus inveighing in a sneering faux-British accent about "corporate integration" and bandmate Bob Nastanovich screaming less coherent phrases in the background. It's a throwback to their noisy punk origins, before they softened up and 'went listenable,' and feels jarringly out of place in its sequencing on the album following "Grounded". The latter is a titan among Pavement's catalogue, a sparkling, majestic gem of instant gravity, beloved by fans and accoladed by most anyone who hears it. After a tidy four minutes or so it sails gracefully off, arpeggios twinkling, as the listener finally begins to gather their breath. And then – slap! – Serpentine Pad.
That jarring transition, that deliberate incongruity, and the humor of it all, is but one example of the joyous chaos that's precisely what makes Wowee Zowee such a stupendous album and my favorite in the band's discography. The album's a journey without a destination, a collage of castoff magazine clippings, a random cast of characters in an improv set. It's a fool's errand to try and pin down any narrative thread, but as in most Pavement material, I detect in it a fair amount of postmodern self-caricature: as a rock band, as Americans, as a gaggle of giggling potheads. In spite of their iconic status in the 90s indie canon, they were themselves backward-looking, idolizing 80s luminaries like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth and longing for those freewheeling indie days of yore. If for a moment it yields in its resistance to interpretation, I take it as a simultaneous rejection and acceptance of their place in the contemporary rock milieu.
Oh, I don't know, maybe there's truly nothing whatsoever to distill from it. Often during warmer months I'll pop Wowee Zowee on my earbuds as I leave work on a Friday and, instead of catching the subway, I'll just start walking. The blocks roll by, the sidewalks teeming with their slipstreams of people going wherever they're going, while the album's zigzagging nonsense carries me on – and, for a few moments, there's no destination, just a wondrous, laughing journey.