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Holy Hell! Wowee Zowee Turns 20

Holy Hell! Wowee Zowee Turns 20

Miraculously, of Pavement’s studio albums, Wowee Zowee is the one that has aged the most favorably.

Few bands are as important to the rise of independent music in America as Pavement. As an act that has garnered more long-term prestige than any kind of immediate success, Pavement has no doubt greatly benefited from the age of the internet, where its name predictably comes up in every informed conversation about indie music, alternative rock and 1990s underground culture in general. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Pavement’s third studio album, Wowee Zowee, which, while not quite occupying the prestigious space its debut Slanted and Enchanted and its follow-up Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain do, still stands as perhaps the best example of who Pavement were as artists and how they settled within the culture that surrounded them. Wowee Zowee isn’t the most popular or namechecked album in Pavement’s discography, but its status as a curiosity only serves to make it even more worthy of study. It’s the rarest of records: a cult band’s cult album.

Wowee Zowee now plays like a State of the Culture address for 1995, a genre-jumping record in which Pavement took the ragged fragments of early ‘90s pop and rock modes, distorting them through its own offbeat, irreverent tendencies. Grunge was crumbling, Britpop was at its apex and Pavement, having projected indie rock into the stratosphere three years earlier, became confident enough to really break away by absorbing the scene and repurposing it with its own twisted talents. This is how you get “Rattled by the Rush,” where a battered guitar solo melts over Stephen Malkmus’ sly, lazy melodies and “Kennel District,” where pop rock sounds collide with shoegaze guitars in a mess of crispy, distorted textures. “We Dance” is probably the best album opener in Pavement’s catalog thanks to its slow, maudlin climax of measured acoustic guitar and piano tinkling. It does little to forewarn of the coming confusion, instead easing the listener into a poignant lull, the first step in the album’s chaotic and dynamic arc. Wowee Zowee, like the music culture surrounding it, was splintered and disorganized, split by a circus of outside influences and internal dissonance, but all the more fascinating for it.

Often that crumbling essence can be heard in the span of one song. “Brinx Job” begins on the wave of a wah guitar pedal and a conga groove before careening into a chaotic mess. “Half a Canyon” takes off as twangy blues and reaches altitude in a maelstrom of wailing desert rock where Malkmus actually scream-sings. The infectious, sunny guitar riffing on “Grave Architecture” devolves into a dulling half-tempo before re-intensifying, more erratic than the first time, and then once again cutting out, eventually ending with all the instruments falling away from each other, slipping into incoherence. If Pavement’s novel, impertinent treatment of conventional song structure was enchanting for audiences on the band’s first two records, Wowee Zowee made the deconstructive songwriting into a restrictive and divisive art.

Wowee Zowee suggested that Pavement had an interest in taking the piss out of the world of ‘90s music just for the sake of it. “Serpentine Pad” tackles a straightforward punk lick in the noisy, uninhibited and ironic style of Sonic Youth while “AT&T,” one of the band’s catchiest tunes, finds Malkmus stuttering, mumbling and wailing his way around the melodies in attempt to make it as inaccessible as possible. Then there’s “Flux = Rad,” which makes no attempt to veil its Nirvana homage but comes out even weirder and more tortured when Malkmus cries, “styles, they come and go/ But I’m not gonna let you.” Pavement, the outsider pop prophets, seemed to understand how the era of ‘90s alternative culture held its values, and saw how quickly it was beginning to devolve. As a result, they embraced an immediate and full deconstruction from the very center of the movement.

Miraculously, of Pavement’s studio albums, Wowee Zowee is the one that has aged the most favorably. The loose genre play and erratic structures that made for less immediate charms in 1995 have come into their own in a 21st century that hails sprawling, experimental records as the defining epics of our time. The focused efforts of Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain earned their places in the canon long ago, but Wowee Zowee is still building on its momentum. It stands next to other adventurous, classification-defying classics like The Beatles and London Calling — maybe not as an Earth-shattering game changer, but certainly as a rare musical statement of iconoclasticism. Its influence is hard to trace around the tangled strands of modern pop culture, but just by listening to it one can tell that Wowee Zowee is one of indie music’s deepest and widest treasures.

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