Bargain of the Week #1: Pavement – Westing (by musket and sextant)
by Thomas Blake
Fuck the disco revival. We’ve had enough of pale bedroom-bound guys making records that sound like Chic/Earth Wind and Fire/Boney M. We’ve had enough of album covers depicting French chaps dressed up as disco-dildos. I’ll say it again, but louder, so you can hear it through your stupid sci-fi bellend helmet: FUCK THE DISCO REVIVAL.
This summer, as we sit indoors nursing our hay fever with white wine straight from the bottle we’d be much better off looking back to the nineties, to grunge, to the jagged underside of pop culture, the American Dream gone shitty, and in particular to slacker aesthetic of acts like Sonic Youth, pre-Loser Beck, The Breeders, early Built To Spill, Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement. These bands, particularly Sonic Youth and Pavement, made music that was so close to not being music that any teenager felt they could make something similar. It was lo-fi taken to the extremes, punk without the politics or the posturing, anti-cool to the extent that it was actually cool as fuck. Despite its DIY ethic, its seeming lack of effort, it was a sound that only a few bands managed to pull off.
The sound and philosophy – or lack of philosophy – of these bands has influenced some truly incredible acts, right up to the present day: Pavement spin-offs The Silver Jews, indie-folk pioneers Neutral Milk Hotel, and anti-folkers like Jeffrey Lewis and Moldy Peaches all owe a debt, as do acts as diverse as lovelorn losers Weezer and riot grrrl stalwarts Bikini Kill. The genre’s wit and attitude even found its way into post-hardcore groups like literate Welsh upstarts Mclusky.
I am in the Sue Ryder charity shop. There is everything you would expect from a charity shop. Sweat-stained tweed. A teapot that is also a clock. An overpriced rocking chair with a dubious stain right where you don’t want a dubious stain. A record player worth about a fiver which, because of PAT testing rules, they’re selling for fifty quid. And something else.
I see it before I have the chance to touch it. The typeface is the first thing that gets me. It’s kinda pencilly. It’s not Dvorak’s New World Symphony played on spoons. It’s not Dirty Dave Does The Wurzels. It’s an actual album, and it says Pavement on the front of it. Pavement. The band I should have loved at the time but never had the chance to get into until much later, to the extent that I’ve spent the last year or two trying to catch up on what I’ve missed.
I start running towards the modest rack of records.
I stop running when a crone of at least eighty years crosses my path.
You see, I am pushing a pushchair, and this is deadly when you’re in a charity shop. If there are no customers, the staff will get you. She bends over. Her distended Adam’s apple swings pendulously like a marble in an udder. She looks like a turkey with face cancer.
‘He’ll be teething soon,’ she crows. I nod assent. I know from bitter experience that one cannot engage these people in conversation, but I can’t help taking her postulation on board. There is a perverse kind of wisdom in those udders. As she turns her head to follow me across the room the grey flesh under her eyes swings after her in the depressing catenary droop of a broken executive toy.
The record costs two pounds. For a millisecond I entertain the idea that it might be by a different Pavement, that I might be buying an LP by an unsigned Britpop band from Corsham. But the song titles convince me otherwise. Heckler Spray. Drive By Fader. Spizzle Trunk. You can’t make that shit up. Unless you’re Stephen Malkmus.
‘You’ll enjoy that’, says the crone, as I cross her palm with silver.
Westing (by musket and sextant) is not a real album. It consists of a bunch of EPs recorded before full-length début Slanted and Enchanted. But it’s early Pavement, and as such it’s not an easy listen. The hiss, the literate shoutiness, the warped, frayed guitars – they’re all there. As are the pop melodies, although, as you’d expect from a man as bloody-minded as Malkmus, they’re hidden in thin, precious seams between schist-like layers of detuned squall.
Box Elder might have been an anthem if anybody had been listening at the time. Maybe Maybe might have been an anthem if Malkmus had sung rather than squawked and spluttered. Price Yeah! could almost be a sun-frazzled White Light/White Heat era Velvets anthem. Debris Slide’s chorus is surf-pop anthem simplicity with added pain. None of these songs could or will ever be an anthem. And this is what pisses me off. The use of the word ‘anthem’ to describe anything vaguely catchy purveyed by sweatless, ageless robots, anything that aims to become the ‘sound of the summer’ on the back of it’s big name production team and massive advertising push. Anthems to what exactly? Saleability? Mediocrity? The tyranny of the majority? Anthems to doomed artistic integrity?
The elderly lady is right. I do enjoy Westing. It takes a few listens. It takes a toothpick to winkle out some of the melodies. It takes, for want of a better word, engagement. But when I have engaged (which is what you have to do to become a music fan, by the way), I start to enjoy. I start to realise I’ve found my sound of the summer.
Post-script: he hasn’t started teething yet. Even the wisest among us can’t be right all the time.