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Pavement: Wowee Zowee: Sordid Sentinels Edition

Matador, 1995/2006

Rating: 4.7

 

Posted: November 15, 2006

By Laurence Station

Wowee Zowee is far and away Pavement’s loosest, loopiest release. At a time when the pressure to capitalize on the surprising success of sophomore effort Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and possibly break through to the Big Time -- or, at the very least, craft another song as irresistibly catchy as “Cut Your Hair” -- must have been intense, Pavement simply indulged in recording the goofiest, most stylistically scattershot creation in the capital-I indie rock band’s catalog. Eschewing the hip angularity of Slanted & Enchanted and the aforementioned Crooked Rain, Wowee Zowee is the aural equivalent of a Mobius strip, making no effort to hide its exaggeratedly elastic and silly tendencies. Rather than beat a full retreat from the wealth and fame most bands crave, Pavement rumbled right over such Madison Avenue expectations, neither apologizing in a self-consciously experimental way via the music nor aiming for some arcane, highbrow concept piece to legitimize the group’s elevated profile.

Following in the tradition of recent Slanted and Crooked deluxe anniversary sets, Matador’s vault-plundering Wowee reissue contains 50 songs (many of them previously unreleased), serving up the remastered proper album, related B-sides, tracks from the excellent (and long out of print) Pacific Trim EP, live cuts and assorted outtakes and alternate mixes/renditions from the original sessions. It’s refreshing to see a label basically unload everything it has with these reissues, rather than holding a few choice nuggets back for later profit-driven incarnations. Matador (and the guys in Pavement) get it right by offering a high-quality package at an agreeable price, essentially delivering the last word on an album’s format. The good news, for Pavement fans, is the thought of forthcoming bundles of similar high quality for the band’s final two albums.

Wowee Zowee itself is usually pegged as the hip Pavement album to name-check in pointless but engaging "most-favored" debates. What it lacks in terms of inspired songcraft and DIY smarts (Slanted) or stellar sequencing and consistency (Crooked), it more than makes up for thanks to unburdened, freewheeling musicianship (Stephen Malkmus’ guitar work never sounded more inventive or expressive) and the sheer exuberance of a set that sounds like it was being made up as the sessions went along. From the elegant, faux-Anglo opener “We Dance” to the snotty punk of “Serpentine Pad” and the swirling fuzz-drone of “Kennel District,” Pavement tries a little bit of everything here. Even more amazing is how well it all holds together. The sheer audacity of styles actually unifies the whole, rather than tearing it apart. Frustratingly, the brief, waterlogged “Western Homes” still closes the album when the preceding “Half a Canyon,” with its manic, wonderfully stretched out, guitar-driven fadeout, would have been more appropriate.

The four songs comprising the Pacific Trim EP are the equal of the bulk of Wowee’s proper tracks, with “Gangsters & Pranksters” serving up the quintessential Pavement couplet, “I’ve got all this Harvard LSD / Why won’t anyone fuck me?” Other highlights include a performance for Australian radio from 1994, in which early, live incarnations of future Wowee tracks get interesting workouts, and the brilliant “No More Kings,” which originally appeared on the Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks compilation. As if to reinforce the curved (rather than, er, slanted) nature of the entire exercise, the deluxe Wowee doubles back on itself, closing with an alternate mix of the opening “We Dance.”

Most importantly, Wowee Zowee still sounds fresh, which is primarily due to the casually improvisational nature of the work. Nothing feels forced here; it’s as if a bunch of friends entered a studio and riffed on whatever ideas were floating around at the time. From a nostalgic viewpoint, Pavement would never sound so carefree and band-oriented again. Wowee Zowee is a testament to what can be accomplished when a group follows a creative, rather than a corporate, muse.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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