It's hard to remember now that the mists of time (and rent and the electric bill) have clouded my vision, but the idea of Pavement "selling out" was once a big deal. It's even harder to remember, now that Stephen Malkmus sports a folkie beard (in spirit, if not fact), that his band's "selling out" actually seemed like a possibility with the release of 1994's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. I even remember getting into an argument in 10th-grade study hall over it. (I was pro, or at least indifferent. My opponent was con. But he also thought being on MTV made Rancid un-punk, so what did he know?) The reason it was even a possibility was one that anti-poppers rarely want to credit the charts for hearing—because it was one of the best albums of any era. I've never been much bothered by Pavement's 1992 debut, Slanted & Enchanted: a few scratchy pop gems plus ballast. But if anyone's come across an album that captures the timorous, twilight nature of suburban high-school summer better than Crooked Rain, I'd love to hear it.
The original 12-song sequence remains unimpeachable. "Cut Your Hair" was one of the '90s' best singles and a more humane and funny portrait of the demise of L.A. hair metal than any episode of VH1's Behind the Music that isn't about Mötley Crüe . Even the requisite Fall homage ("Hit the Plane Down") sounds pretty great. But the album's reputation rests on the twin peaks of "Gold Soundz" and "Range Life." The rolling Byrds-meet-Buzzcocks country-rock guitars and lazy-assed delivery of profound banalities (key lines: the ones in "Gold Soundz" about both of us being empty) are the sound of skateboard wheels clacking against sidewalk with no particular place to go. If Pavement had recorded nothing else, their place in history would probably be as secure. So of course they stuck a Dave Brubeck pastiche between them.
To use the word "uneven" to describe the remainder of Matador's recent reissue, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: L.A.'s Desert Origins (49 songs total, with 37 extra songs, B-sides, compilation tracks, radio shots, and demos appended to the perfect album), would be a high compliment. Pavement's legendary facility with B-sides and rarities has always been slightly overstated by the kind of fans who spend entire shows shouting for a band to play their first single. (The demos with original drummer Gary Young show why he needed to be dumped to make an album as tight as Crooked Rain.) But if you're enough of a fan to care, you probably own this thing already. And if you're not, go buy the original LP before you even put the paper down. "Young, gifted, and slack," or so the line ran at the time. With hindsight, though I'd hesitate to call it maturity, it's clear the middle was the greater part.