Matador – 1995
Widely dismissed upon its arrival, Pavement’s third album has since become a cult favorite. A boundless well of creativity, Wowee Zowee found the group at their most dexterous, surreal, and freewheeling.
The common narrative surrounding Pavement’s third album is that it was a flop: a missed opportunity for the band to capitalize on the success of their first two records; a difficult album once despised by fans and critics alike, but that has since become a dark horse favorite in the group’s catalog. At least this is the angle discussed in retrospective think pieces, reviews of the album’s 2006 reissue, and Bryan Charles’ entry on Wowee Zowee for the 33 1/3 book series.
There’s nothing particularly wrong about this take on Wowee Zowee; for example, my own experience with the record followed a path of initial confusion, the discovery of clear favorites, and an eventual embrace of the entire album as a gloriously sprawling summation of virtually everything that made Pavement both great and singular. Never would I recommend that a total newcomer begin with Wowee Zowee, but never would I question someone who insisted that it was the band’s best album.
And even if it’s not Pavement’s best, one could certainly make a convincing argument that Wowee Zowee provides the best summation of the group’s decade of recorded work. Pavement have never been a group to follow a typical career arc – after all, what is arguably their best-known song today languished in obscurity as a B-side for nearly two decades – and Wowee Zowee practically revels in its cryptic universe of understated gems, studio toss offs, and minor masterpieces. Sure, it’s knotty, impatient, and temperamental, but that’s all part of what makes it so compelling.
While it’s tempting to view Wowee Zowee – or any album – in isolation, it’s worth pointing out that it did not come together as the result of a single session. The bulk of the record was tracked at Doug Easley’s Memphis studio, but several songs first emerged during the sessions for 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – many of which were captured in the same New York studio. Though this period also found the band touring extensively behind Crooked Rain, one could consider Wowee Zowee to be part of a single creative burst from 1993-94: one that produced two albums, two EPs (1995’s Rattled by la Rush and 1996’s Pacific Trim), a host of excellent B-sides, and several outtakes that would eventually appear on the reissues of Crooked Rain and Wowee Zowee.
Where Wowee Zowee manages to confound many listeners is in its relative lack of obvious hooks. Stephen Malkmus has often been accused/credited for his “elliptical” writing, and nowhere in Pavement’s catalog is this element of his art more heavily emphasized. Only a small handful of Wowee Zowee‘s eighteen tracks feature their titles in their lyrics, and only a couple do so in what could be referred to as a chorus: “Rattled by the Rush” and “Fight This Generation.” Unsurprisingly, the former was chosen as the album’s first single – a move that Malkmus has since questioned, but really, what song here would’ve been more likely to be played on the radio?
“Title in chorus” may seem like a trite facet to focus on, but consider previous deployments of this in Pavement’s catalog (“Zurich is Stained,” “Range Life,” “Stop Breathin'”) and remember how little effort it took to internalize those tracks as highlights of their respective albums. Malkmus himself seemed to have recognized the earworm potential of the practice, as Wowee Zowee‘s follow-up, Brighten the Corners, utilized it in seven of its twelve tracks. This isn’t to suggest that Corners‘ “We Are Underused” is superior to Zowee‘s “AT & T” – it’s not – but it may help to explain why listeners in 1995 may have found little to immediately latch onto when taking in the nearly hour-long record.
Nor am I simply saying that retitling “AT & T” as “Whenever, Whenever” or “Room Service Calls” or “Maybe Someone’s Gonna Save Me” (ugh, not that one) would’ve helped endear Wowee Zowee to more listeners, but the deliberate non-emphasis of the song’s strongest hooks arguably removed some of its currency in an underground music culture that was still hyper-dependent on word-of-mouth promotion. Similarly, Scott Kannberg’s “Kennel District” has an infinitely better title than “Why Didn’t I Ask,” but which one was more likely to be associated with the song after a few casual listens?
These are questions that might’ve made for marginally interesting discussion in 1995, but the truth is, Wowee Zowee would ultimately endear itself over the long haul, thanks in large part to its willful obscurity. The rock press was clearly hoping for Pavement to capitalize on the semi-breakthrough of Crooked Rain, and were left bewildered by the album that the band delivered; a 2 1/2 star review in Rolling Stone was particularly brutal, and – at a time in which the magazine still held a lot of sway over which indie acts “ascended” to wider success – played a large part in sealing Wowee Zowee‘s reputation as a flop.
However, neither the band nor their label, Matador, considered the record to be a disappointment, and the eventual embrace of Wowee Zowee would justify their collective faith in it. Tempting as it might have been to pick through Wowee Zowee for mixtape fodder (and each of the aforementioned tracks could’ve been deployed well in such a capacity), it’s a work whose individual pieces gain power in the collective sprawl of a three-sided LP. Apparent throwaways like “Brinx Job,” “Extradition,” and “Flux = Rad” provide effective bridges to the major tracks, just as Pavement’s label mates Guided by Voices would prove with their concurrent masterwork, Alien Lanes (released just one week prior to Wowee Zowee).
Those “major tracks” stand among Pavement’s peak recordings. “Rattled by the Rush,” “AT & T,” and “Kennel District” were the could-have-been hits, but even better was the album’s second single, “Father to a Sister of Thought.” One of the most wistful tracks in the band’s catalog, “Father” benefits greatly from the late addition of Doug Easley’s pedal steel guitar, deepening the country influences that had been hinted at on Crooked Rain era songs, “Range Life,” “Heaven is a Truck,” and the B-side, “Strings of Nashville.”
Better still is the album’s centerpiece: the stirring “Grounded.” By then a staple of the band’s live set, the song had first been recorded during the Crooked Rain sessions, but the final version slowed its tempo significantly, emphasizing the stately grandeur of Malkmus’ descending riff and paying off with the most rewarding crescendo in their discography up to that point. It’s rightfully considered to be one of their finest moments.
But these tracks have pretty much always been lauded, just as the toss-offs have always been seen as interstitial. Where Wowee Zowee lands on your own personal ranking of Pavement albums is likely to depend on how you feel about its ample middle ground, and here is where the record’s reputation as a “grower” is solidified. It’s likely to take several listens before catching small-but-meaningful details, like the way that the crystalline arpeggios and buzz saw lead guitar of “Black Out” perfectly intertwine, or the auxiliary percussion and reverb of “Grave Architecture,” or the badass groove of the krautrock-by-way-of-Stereolab “Half a Canyon,” or the deceptive hooks of “Motion Suggests.”
Few, if any, noted it at the time of the record’s release, but over the past twenty-five years, one of the talking points surrounding Wowee Zowee is that it is Pavement’s own “White Album,” and while it’s folly to reframe every great band’s career arc in the reference points of The Beatles, the comparison tracks. Like the “White Album,” Wowee Zowee was not the record that anyone wanted or expected Pavement to make, but it was the kind of record that they had to make in order to continue functioning as a band. It’s often disarming in its low-key charm. It makes a concerted effort to not take itself too seriously. And, like the “White Album,” its individual tracks each acted as their own cottage industry for legions of followers.
Funnily enough, there was another American “alt rock” band who released a sprawling magnum opus of their own in 1995, albeit one that almost dared critics to draw comparisons to The Beatles’ totemic double LP (do you really think that the Victorian era affectations and “good night” endings were purely coincidental?). Pavement had verbally tussled with this band in the rock press over the preceding year, but on Wowee Zowee, they simply let their music do the talking, and left it up to history to sort out the details.