SM and Pavement: Album Cover Retrospective

With the new Stephen Malkmus & Jicks album set to drop any day now, we thought we’d take a look at the history of SM’s ouvre via his past album covers.

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Slanted and Enchanted (1992): Pavement’s first full length defines the so-called lo-fi indie rock sound: scrawling guitars that went to school on Sonic Youth’s Sister, ramshackle percussion (courtesy of original crazy-ass Gary Young), cryptic lyrics, and toneless melodies. The first album also sets the template for the Pavement aesthetic: notebook graffiti, polysemous symbols, postpunk DIY collage work, and lots of scribbling. Key tracks: “Summer Babe,” “In the Mouth a Desert,” “Trigger Cut.”

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Westing by Musket and Sextant (1993): The first Pavement record I bought. On tape! From Camelot Music. Because they didn’t have Slanted and Enchanted. The DIY cover is riddled with seemingly cryptic messages that are actually references to songs and albums that Pavement liked (e.g. “Maps and Legends” by REM). Westing takes the DIY look of Slanted to the next level, and helps to inform not just the way Pavement albums and singles will look for the next few years, but also seems to codify the indie rock look in general (see also: Sebadoh). Key tracks: “Box Elder,” “Forklift,” “Debris Slide.”

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Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994): This is the first album I remember anticipating coming out. “Luck on every finger”–more cryptology. Was the second song called “Ell Ess Two” or “Elevate Me Later,” or maybe it was “LS2”? Is that SM’s handwriting? An album about rock music. It didn’t leave my CD player for the next three years, and that is no exaggeration. Key tracks: The whole album is perfect. “Gold Soundz” works on any mixtape if you’re in a pinch though. My favorite track might be “Stop Breathin’,” which I think is about the Civil War. For years I thought that Pavement included the only bad track on Crooked Rain, “Hit the Plane Down,” as a kind of purposeful marring, like ancient artisans who included a flaw in their art so as not to displease the gods. Later I just realized that that was the Spiral Staircase track.

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Wowee Zowee (1995): For their follow-up to the album that made them almost famous, Pavement take a different tack approaching their album cover. Wowee Zowee‘s cover is at once startling and silly, the intensity of the two broad-brush stroked figures, rendered in serious and somber hues, undercut by the absurdity of thought bubbles and a kindergarteneresque rendering of a doggy. Easily the best album cover, and a nice break from the indie rock aesthetic they’d pioneered. The crouching figures have always reminded me of sullen cavemen. Wowee Zowee is the true Pavement fan’s favorite, and I am no exception. Rambling, overlong, overstuffed with half-assed experiments, it’s a true joy to listen to again and again. Key tracks: Though pop tracks like “AT&T” and “Kennel District” are immediately rewarding, the best songs take some time to grow on the listener. My favorites are “Grounded,” “Half a Canyon,” and “Grave Architecture.” And of course, he who denies acoustic opener “We Dance” is a heartless bastard.

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Brighten the Corners (1997): My least favorite Pavement album. The cover is great though; it incorporates some of the old DIY collage flavor, but retains a solidness of sorts that adds up to an “artistic statement.” I think they might’ve wanted it to look like an old thrift store record or something, but the tacked on figures dancing in the left corner make it just a tad too busy. Key tracks: “Shady Lane,” “Type Slowly.” This album, unfortunately, has two end tracks: the album feels like it should end with “Starlings of the Slipstream,” but there’s still “Fin” to contend with

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Terror Twilight (1999): By 1999, OK Computer had dropped, and jangly indie rock was no longer the music of choice for hipsters in the know, who flocked instead to the instrumental stylings of Tortoise and other so-called “post-rock” bands. Eager to have the hit they’d never quite scored, Pavement enlisted Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to produce Terror Twilight, resulting in the band’s slickest album to date. It was also to be their last. The cover reflects a probable Pavement of the new millennium: an incandescent astral cowboy (?)/dog lover, digitally imposed over a tasteful black background. No bizarro scribbling, no cut and paste collage work. I kind of remember the album being written off at the time, and I recall being unenthusiastic myself, but over time I’ve found myself relistening to this one the most. Key tracks: “Spit on a Stranger,” “Carrot Rope,” “Major Leagues,” and “The Hexx” are easily four of Pavement’s best songs.

SM Goes Solo

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Stephen Malkmus (2001): “Hey. Guess what? I made a solo album. That’s right! Pavement broke up and I’m a solo artist now, get it? See? Look, I named the album after myself, and I’m gonna put a big picture of myself right up on it. Pretty cool, huh? Like my Underdog T-shirt?” Key tracks: I love this album. Malkmus picks right up where “Major Leagues” and “Carrot Rope” left off, turning in stand outs like “Jenny and the Ess-Dog,” “Deado,” and “Pink India.” Any doubt about who was running the Pavement show is put to rest.

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Pig Lib (2003): The first album under the moniker SM & Jicks, Pig Lib‘s cover eschews Malkmus’s photo in favor of some of the old Pavement trademark cut n’ paste imagery. The shadow-devil’s speech bubble recalls the cover of Wowee Zowee, and the marginalia recalls old Pavement in general. However, the cover isn’t nearly as cramped as, say, Crooked Rain, suggesting a slicker, more AOR-friendly sound. Key tracks: “Vanessa from Queens” and “Do Not Feed the Oyster” are good but ultimately silly (and forgettable) tracks; they best represent the general (shallow) depth of songwriting on Pig Lib. Album closer “Us” is brilliant though.

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Face the Truth (2006): The cover of Face the Truth represents the contrast between the Pavement DIY cut n’ paste/notebook marginalia sensibility with the new, more mature Stephen Malkmus solo stuff (hence the “dignified” font). Still, SM can’t help getting a little silly, pasting photos of friends and bandmates on one of the flower/balloon things. Key tracks: The Jicks don’t make the cover because SM apparently played most of the album himself. Tracks like “Mama,” “It Kills,” and “Malediction” suggest that this was a pretty good idea, but “Kindling for the Master” should’ve been left as a B-side.

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Real Emotional Trash (2008): With RET, SM finally captures that lost 70s thrift store score aesthetic he’d been poking at for years. The cover perfectly matches the long, rambling, riff-centric pieces on the record. The Jicks, including Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss on drums, are more prominent than ever, even adding backing vocals. Key tracks: Very early to tell, but the center piece title track is an awesome slacker tribute to Dicky Betts that’s currently been on repeat around the Biblioklept International Headquarters. We’re also really digging “Hopscotch Willie.”

6 thoughts on “SM and Pavement: Album Cover Retrospective”

  1. i’m finding myself surprisingly somewhat liking this album as well…i had sort of written off the post-pavement malkmus sound as just something i’d moved past…i listened to the first two albums alot when they came out but that didn’t really last – and i just didn’t like Face the Truth. I was really surprised to be listening to this new stuff and that wall of pretentiousness we build when we decide someone is musically “done” chip away. i’m a pretty flaky listener, so it’ll be interesting to see if this withstands the test of time, but for now, i kinda dig it. great breakdown btw – “Later I just realized that that was the Spiral Staircase track.” – classic. for all you Staircase apologists – please stop listening to and talking about music. you are wrong.

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  2. Whoa! Thanks for the sweet end-of-the-workday stroll down Malkmoose lane. I, too, thought Hit The Plane Down was some sort of purposeful glitch, a a warning to listeners that the Pavement’s not always smooth.

    Then I realized that they were all just big fans of The Fall. Especially Spiral Staircase.

    Like

  3. Why the hate on Spiral? It’s true that ‘Hit the Plane Down’ is the weakest track on ‘Crooked Rain,’ but ‘Date w/Ikea,’ ‘Passat Dream,’ and ‘Kennel District’ are ace tunes.

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