Song 269: Pavement, “Unfair” (1994)

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Where to start with Pavement? That’s what I’ve been wondering for many months as I’ve attempted to write something, anything about them. Not only do they have many great songs to pick from, they’re also hard to pin down in a general way. They wrote and played songs that were beautiful, sad, funny, bitter, and celebratory, sometimes in the course of a single song. They loved ambiguity, but they also loved specificity. They had good songs and bad songs. They seem, in retrospect, to have done everything all at once.

I wasn’t aware of Pavement when they were originally around, and I wish I had been. It may have been a little rough for my taste back in high school, but it would have been a rewarding gateway, one that would have led to the world of indie rock that I found later on. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is my favorite Pavement record, and I think it’s the one I would have liked most at the time. I was already listening to Weezer and Smashing Pumpkins, and Pavement, despite some differences in sound (and Stephen Malkmus’s infamous takedown of the latter band on “Range Life”) were similar in many ways: they all catered in dark weirdness cloaked in heavy fuzz, and in the joy of explosion.

I thought for a long time about the Pavement song I most wanted to feature. The beautiful slow-burn “Here”? The crowd-pleasing pop single “Cut Your Hair”? The cheeky Brubeck rip-off “5-4=Unity”? I ultimately settled on “Unfair” because it brings me such pleasure every time I hear it. It bursts out of the gate as if it’s been waiting for hours behind a closed door, and it only briefly lets up its brisk pace over its two minutes and thirty-three seconds. I love so much about this song, but my favorite thing is probably the moment Malkmus scream-sings the lines “Walk! With your credit card in the air! Swing your nachos like you just don’t care! This is the slow, sick sucking part of me! This is the slow, sick sucking part of me!” By the end of the song, Malkmus is straight-up screaming, as if his nonsense protest song has completely worn him out.

I tend to think of Malkmus as a kind of Dadaist, an artist who takes an accepted art form and plays gleefully within it. It’s the jester that also pops up in songs like “Stereo,” in which he giddily yells, “Hey! Listen to me! I’m on your stereo, your stereo!” And he always, whether the song is happy, sad, or somewhere in between, sounds excited to be there.

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