Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain has my favorite opening to any album: a bass and a lead guitar argue while a drum kit tries to mediate. After the three have hashed it out, they start to work together to introduce what is probably my favorite song in Pavement's catalog, "Silence Kit." By the time Stephen Malkmus enters the mix, exactly one minute into the album, the song has exploded like a wild cannon shot. What follows is an anthemic take on Buddy Holly's "Everday" that ends with Malkmus jerking off backstage after a show. In a sliver over three minutes, Pavement make an open and shut case for themselves as one of the most inventive rock bands of the 90s (second only maybe to Radiohead).
From the pathologically catchy "Cut Your Hair" to the heart-on-sleeve earnestness of "Gold Soundz" to the brazen choices of "Filmore Jive," the next 39 minutes after "Silence Kit" offer the best of the band. The album is frequently talked about as if it was Pavement's conscious attempt to gain fame. Whether or not Pavement were this calculated when writing and recording the album, I'm not sure I care to speculate. What I do care about is how this album fits into Pavement's career. Crooked Rain is the most quintessentially Pavement album they ever made. They sound like a bunch of confidently intelligent, relaxed products of suburban California. They sound like themselves.
Like Slanted and Enchanted, Crooked Rain is boatloads of fun. "Unfair" is an ecstatic tour of California via its water rights issues. Malkmus doesn't pull punches: "You film hack, I don't use your pay." "5-4 = Unity" is a playful send-up of David Brubeck's seminal "Take Five." But unlike their full length debut, the band wasn't afraid to scrape the distortion off their guitars to make some direct statements. The spiritual center of the album is "Range Life." The song is a surprisingly personal take on band life and indie cred: "After the glow, the scene, the stage, the set/Talk becomes slow but there's one thing I'll never forget/Hey, you gotta pay your dues before you pay the rent." At this point in their careers, Pavement shouldn't have had to worry about paying their dues, but they clearly understood the fickle nature of the beast. And Malkmus sounds a little bitter about it: "If I could settle down, then I would settle down." But instead of bitching and moaning about being in a great band, he turns song's attention elsewhere. He's a teenager again, winding his way through the empty suburban streets on his skateboard. The lyrics are the most genuinely poetic thing Malkmus has ever written: "Out on my skateboard, the night is just hummin'/The gum smacks are the pulse I'll follow if my Walkman fades/But I've got absolutely no one, no one but myself to blame." Lines as poignant as that lose their luster under the microscope of interpretation.
When I got my turntable a while back, I started to make a list of albums that I wanted to own on vinyl (and to keep me on track in my local record stores). The only criteria for inclusion on the list was that the record had to be an album that I usually listened to from front to back. Crooked Rain was one of the first two or three records that made it on the list.