Playing God
Pavement: Wowee Zowee

as “Cut Your Hair” became an MTV sort-of-hit and critics from Rolling Stone on down (justly) praised Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement slowly found themselves backed into a corner. I’m just as willing to read a death-and-rebirth-of-rock subtext into the skewed songs of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain as anyone, but Pavement never wanted to be indie classic rock and wouldn’t approach the thematic constancy of that album again. Instead, they decided to make the sprawling, messy, wonderful Wowee Zowee, and since they were on Matador it got released. At 18 tracks and 56 minutes, it had enough obviously “arty” or “obtuse” bits to scare off the crowds and have them tagged by Rolling Stone as “afraid of success”.

The arty bits aren’t that hard to love, of course, but in between them lurks what might have been Pavement’s best album, with many of the songs being unjustly overlooked. Sure, I love the sprawl as much as everyone else, but in cutting the number of tracks by a third, adding a judiciously chosen b-side and changing the order considerably you get more than just a “difficult” post-brush-with-fame album, you get a lost classic. I know Pavement fans can be pretty rabid, especially about albums like Wowee Zowee that aren’t so universally loved, but I wish I could hand out CD-Rs of this one to all the doubters, because I’m sure I’d get more than a few converts.

01. Half A Canyon (6:10)
Wowee Zowee was the first Pavement I ever heard, and by the time I got to “Half A Canyon” (originally track 17), I didn’t know what to think. Six minutes later, I felt strangely obligated not to like this song, it seemed pretty damned silly between Stephen Malkmus’s pig squeals and the bit where he chants the French word “Allez!” (I think). Subsequent listens revealed that the “wacky” bits are actually pretty funny (especially when Malkmus stops shrieking and grunting long enough to scream “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m still going!”), and the riffing is the strongest on the album, the song shifting halfway through to a manic guitar-and-organ jam. If after the epic, emotional classicism of “Fillmore Jive” on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain Pavement were looking to scare off the non-committed, “Half A Canyon” will work just fine.

02. Father To A Sister Of Thought (3:30)
Once it stops, though, we get dropped right into the clear chime and weeping pedal steel of “Father To A Sister Of Thought”. My version of Wowee Zowee shears off most of the noisy, amateurish bursts of sloppy songcraft, which means on the whole this would be their most mellow album. The time to begin easing those looking for another “Hit The Plane Down” or “No Life Signed Here” should begin resigning themselves now. Instead, this song has the same wistful tone (“I know I’m leading in/To the end”) as an older song like “Here” or “Range Life”.

03. We Dance (3:01)
The original opener, I’ve heard people refer to “We Dance” as a parody/homage to either English folk music or Suede. It’s even quieter than “Father To A Sister Of Thought”, starting with just Malkmus, an acoustic guitar and a piano. The long, slow, sad fade out at the end really makes the song.

04. Kennel District (2:59)
Scott Kannberg really came into his own during the time of Wowee Zowee, as his album tracks here and on Brighten The Corners are probably his finest work. “Kennel District” is for me the song that sounds like romantic yearning (which has a lot to do with when it entered my life, I’ll admit), with the standard fuzzy, rocky backing humming away in the background as Kannberg asks despairingly “Why didn’t I ask/Why didn’t I ask/Why didn’t I?”. After the two softer songs, “Kennel District” is still pretty mellow but it’s a nice change.

05. Fight This Generation (4:22)
“Fight This Generation” is one of those Pavement songs that sounds like two tracks welded together in the middle, but in such a way that you can’t really conceive of separating them. Starting as a gentle, string backed ballad (although the strings are the standard canned ones that adorn every second indie rock record these days), the guitar rippling in and out, it turns into a menacing riff, Malkmus repeating the title phrase until it loses all meaning. It’s not a highlight, and it was either this or “Grave Architecture”, but the shift in tone in the ending here keeps it interesting whereas the coda to “Grave Architecture” just bores me, so it gets the nod.

06. Motion Suggests (3:15)
After a weird, almost calliope-style intro, this turns into an almost narcotic slow groove, backed with castanets. As Malkmus urges us to “Curse the tainted pharoahes”, the track eventually drifts into an extraordinarily peaceful outro—a clear forebear to a song like “Blue Hawaiian” and a good way to end the first side of the record.

07. Rattled By The Rush (4:16)
“Rattled By The Rush”, the second track on the actual Wowee Zowee, was the first time I understood what I had earlier read about Pavement, all that stuff about weird pop songs and the like. Building on the clearer guitar tone first used in Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, this rambles on as a great start-stop tune (complete with harmonica!) for a while, and is possible about a wedding (“I don’t need a minister/To call me a groom/But I’m rattled by the rush”) before blasting off, the gnarled (gnarly?) guitars roaring and twining around each other. The song’s second half is given over to this spellbinding interplay and a rousing final set of outbursts from Malkmus. I tend to construct these albums as if they might be on vinyl as well, and if it was on that medium, you’d want the second half to have a strong start.

08. Black Out (2:10)
The transition from the last song to this one is the only sequence of tracks on this version of Wowee Zowee that exists on the original, but it’s so perfect I couldn’t help but keep it. The expansive “Black Out” follows from the stressed “Rattled By The Rush” so naturally I can’t imagine anything else being here. A great summer driving song, if a bit slight.

09. Best Friends Arm (2:19)
I imagine, though one can never predict what others think about music, that this is the song that will most surprise skeptics. Starting with another rough rave up (like a lot of the tracks I dropped) it veers into a stoned deadness, the band chanting “Keep it under your best friend’s arm” (although the title has no apostrophe, for whatever reason), as the guitar slurs in and out of focus in a really cool fashion before the track cuts out. Yes it’s weird, and a little off-putting to some, but I wasn’t trying to get rid of the weirdness and experimentation of Wowee Zowee. Just the experiments that didn’t work.

10. AT&T; (3:32)
I’m continually surprised that more reviews, fans, etc, don’t talk about “AT&T;”. For a long time it was my favorite song on this album, bearing a strong resemblance to past classics like “Gold Soundz” and “Trigger Cut” in feel if nothing else, and the bit where Malkmus sings “I’m blue and green, green and bluuuuuuuue” and the tracks wavers for a second came back to me strongly the first time I heard the Shins’ “Saint Simon”. No version of Wowee Zowee would be complete without it.

11. Pueblo (3:25)
There’s almost a country-rock feel to much of Pavement’s output of this time, and most strongly in “Pueblo”. You could easily imagine some jam band playing this live and stretching the middle and end bits to ten minutes apiece, but Pavement keep it short and sweet. The bits of course come after the chorus, and what a chorus! The song seems to be an impressionistic account of a trial and hanging in the old west, and I can’t even begin to explain how this becomes the most rousing part of the album: “Alright I want a cigarette / All those trials and things they try to do / While wondering over why we're insane / Damn land ho, won't you please?”, but there it is.

12. Grounded (4:14)
“Pueblo”, as great a song as it is, sounds like it’s leading into something epic (originally “Half A Canyon”), and “Grounded” is maybe the greatest song Pavement ever wrote. After the twinkling guitar intro (probably studied by Interpol), the song proper starts and Malkmus starts singing in his normal cryptic fashion about a doctor before erupting with the plea “Boys are dying on these streets”, which brings on the guitars. Stephen Malkmus is well-loved by fans for many reasons, but one of the reasons I like him so much is his ability to project a vast range of emotional tonality into whatever lyrics he’s singing. “Grounded” is, vocals and guitars both, absolutely heartwrenching.

13. Mussle Rock (Is A Horse In Transition) (3:31, b-side from the Father To A Sister Of Thought single)
A final Spiral Stairs slowburner to end out the revised Wowee Zowee. Hidden behind the prankster trappings of the album is a core of melancholy and yearning, and “Mussle Rock (Is A Horse In Transition)” nails that feeling, despite the stupid title. It’s got the same fuzzed, sturdy sound as “Kennel District”, as Kannberg sings “Pelican road is closed for summer / Feeling like I wasted my day” before launching into the endless repeated refrain that comprises most of the rest of the song: “How will I know?”. Eventually the song fades out in a haze of “do do do”s and bleepy guitar, bringing my version of Wowee Zowee to a close.

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-05-11
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