Mar 7, 2010

Quarantine the Past

Unfortunately, it's only a matter of time before the word slacker gets rediscovered. The word was a inspired bit of armchair sociology that was ultimately undermined by its own weaknesses as a classification. Slacker was never a convincing condemnation because slack was a virtue, a quasi-political statement of intent. Slack was never about work ethic; it was always about motivation. A slacker was an underachiever only in the sense that achieving had been defined by such narrow parameters. Superchunk got it right the first time: "I'm working, but I'm not working for you, slack motherfucker!" And Pavement were the quintessential slack motherfuckers.

This year sees the unlikely reunion of Pavement, which prompted Matador to release something of a greatest hits package, Quarantine the Past, for the band. This begs the question: who is the greatest hits album for these days? Who needs to be introduced to a band's career by means of such an antiquated method? The internet has made the quaint greatest hits package superfluous: you can download a band's entire catalog in minutes. I have a hard time imagining that this record will introduce that many kids to Pavement. I mean, most kids have cooler/dorkier older brothers or access to the internet (which is essentially the same thing). But if it does, then I think Quarantine the Past is a nearly perfect Cliff's Notes to Pavement. You get the most immediate classics in their catalog: "Summer Babe," Gold Soundz," "Shady Lane," "Cut Your Hair." But the album throws some nice curveballs your way: the noisy racket of "Mellow Jazz Docent," the punk workout of "Debris Slide." Every era of Pavement's career is covered and documented, from their bratty, smart-alecky early days ("Two States") to the elegant and earnest late years ("Spit on a Stranger").

The center of the 23-song retrospective is a three song set that define Pavement's core sound: "Grounded," "Summer Babe (Winter Version)," and "Range Life." "Grounded" showcases a band who have made layers of distorted guitars sound elegant and sophisticated. But whereas "Grounded" is tight and controlled (mainly due to West's whip-cracking drum work), "Range Life" is a shaggy dog story with a great hook. The song is most famous for its final verse in which Malkmus cracks on the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots (a joke that has not aged well), but it's the impressionistic middle verse that holds all the song's charm. But the exact center of the record is "Summer Babe," the song that better than any other one encapsulates what Pavement could do with a couple of guitars, a bass, and a drum kit. The song is a towering masterpiece: every element of Pavement's sound for the next decade was present on "Summer Babe": the rusty guitars, the clever bass, Malkmus' nasal voice moving between lazy and impassioned at the drop of a hat.

When you're dealing with a band of this caliber, it's difficult not to demand a more nuanced look back. For the life of me, I can't figure out why "Silence Kit" or "Major Leagues" or "Kennel District" or "Strings of Nashville" or their awesome cover of Echo and the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon" were left off. I could lose a few songs on the record: "Fight this Generation," "Embassy Row," or "Heaven is a Truck." Matador plays is relatively safe with Quarantine the Past, but anyone intrigued by the record will be shocked at the amount of material uncovered by the excellent deluxe reissues of the past decade. It's hard to fault Matador for the tracklist because it wasn't designed with the obsessive fan in mind. This is an entry-level record for entry-level fans.

When the tracklist for Quarantine the Past was revealed back in January, I could have reviewed it right then and there. These songs are that ingrained into me, that essential to my musical development. And if pressed, I would be inclined to say that Pavement is my favorite band of all time. They aren't the most talented band, nor as they the most important band. But with maybe two or three exceptions, there just isn't another band that I listen to as much now as I did when I was 15 years old, back I when I was a slack little motherfucker myself.

You can purchase Quarantine the Past here or here.

Rating: 10/10

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