What’s presented here is a version of Wowee Zowee that exercises just a little bit more control while still being true to the band’s chaotic spirit.
There’s a certain group among Pavement fans who will find what I’m about to do to be blasphemous. To them, I can only apologize and move on, but to the rest of us, I will posit that we’ve all at least thought of tearing down and rebuilding Wowee Zowee. It’s impossible not to: this is the album where Pavement, usually masters of maintaining complete control while looking like they didn’t give a shit, actually didn’t give a shit. Chalk it up to fear from their brief brush with fame in 1994, or the eternally mischievous spirit of Stephen Malkmus or too much weed, but Wowee Zowee is an absolutely glorious mess. And yes, some people love this record because of that, but I’m going to attempt to clean up the mess.
It’s entirely likely that Wowee Zowee was intended to be as impenetrable as it is, but in contrast to the obscurity of Pavement’s vital early work, I think that facade works against the band here. There’s definitely an idea for an album here, a move towards a sound that’s a little more druggy and guitar-focused. However, they cut a little bit too loose on the album as is, and the result is something akin to the clear-the-decks approach of Guided By Voices with far more chaff than wheat. What’s presented here is a version of Wowee Zowee that exercises just a little bit more control while still being true to the band’s chaotic spirit.
1. Kennel District
2. Father to a Sister of a Thought
4. Fight This Generation
5. Rattled By the Rush
6. Black Out
7. We Dance
8. Motion Suggests
9. Grave Architecture
12. Half a Canyon
13. I Love Perth
Added tracks: “I Love Perth”
Omitted tracks: “Brinx Job”, “Serpentine Pad”, “Extradition”, “Best Friend’s Arm”, “Flux=Rad”, “Western Homes”
1. “Kennel District”
Picking an opener is difficult here: do you try to disguise what kind of an album this is (as Pavement kinda did with “We Dance”), or do you go weird right out the gate? It’s an impossible choice, so this version of the album does neither and opens with the lone Spiral Stairs songs to make the cut, which also happens to be the best song that he ever wrote for Pavement. Overall, not a bad place to start.
2. “Father to a Sister of a Thought”
After fuzzy guitar pop, we switch to this wry nod to alt-country, complete with pedal steel. This will be the first of many curve balls that Wowee Zowee offers, but it’s also one of the album’s more touching moments, with a surprisingly sincere (by his standards) vocal performance by Stephen Malkmus to match the weepy pedal steel notes.
It’s a ‘90s rock album, so putting all of the singles right at the front should be standard practice. And this really should have been a single, too: for all of Malkmus’ goofy vocal gymnastics, the undeniable guitar part is one of Pavement’s better compositions. It’s a real hidden gem on the original album, and it takes more of a starring role here.
4. “Fight This Generation”
Things have been pretty comfortable so far, so it’s time to get a little weird with this surprisingly aggressive slow burner. The fragmented interplay between Malkmus’ guitar and the keyboards gives the impression of a band noodling just for the sake of it, which is actually used to great effect here to stop the building tension of the song. This could be the most Pavement moment on the album.
5. “Rattled By the Rush”
The last of the real singles here, this is a classic rock workout that probably would have been shorter if done for Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, but it’s been given room to breathe here. One can almost hear the Jicks forming in Malkmus’ head as he jams out over the end of the song.
6. “Black Out”
The transition from “Rush” to this song was always one of the most surprisingly beautiful moments in Pavement’s catalog, so it stays here and gives an opportunity to slow things down and focus on something more melodic after all the guitar freak-outs.
7. “We Dance”
We end side one of the album (if we were pressing it onto vinyl) with its prettiest song. Even when attempting to obfuscate his intentions, Malkmus’ romantic sincerity can’t help but shine through here as he admits to wanting some respite from a crazy world.
8. “Motion Suggests”
The bizarre calypso intro elevates “Motion Suggests” from being a simple song fragment and into one of the album’s stranger divergences. The sun-baked guitar tone (which itself might be a thematic element for Wowee Zowee as a whole) creates a hallucinatory atmosphere that will be the key to the second side of this version of the album.
9. “Grave Architecture”
Another fan favorite, this has all the makings of what could be called a run-of-the-mill Pavement song right up until the half-way point. But remember, this is Wowee Zowee, so the band take another hit of whatever it is they’ve been taking and they keep on going. This is where the jam starts.
The dynamics between verse and chorus match up to the old Pixies/grunge formula of quiet verse/loud chorus, but this is a mid-tempo song on an album that’s becoming increasingly jammy, so any volume on Malkmus’ vocals is drowned out by his and Spiral Stairs’ languid guitar solos, which soar higher and higher until they become the only part of the song you remember.
Once we go high, we have to come back down with Malkmus’ story of a wealthy suburban doctor forever haunted by the grisly work that allows him to live in comfort. Once again, the arrangement and instrumental performance tell the story, filling the song with a sense of dread that builds further and further until the guitars seem to re-enact a psychotic break in the outro. A startling early track on the original album, here it serves to build us up towards an ending befitting of its madness.
12. “Half a Canyon”
This is the manifestation of the break experienced at the end of the previous track. “Half a Canyon” is pure madness; it’s six minutes of Malkmus spouting nonsense as the band switches abruptly from slow, bluesy jam to motorik freak-out right at the end. Originally, its placement on Wowee Zowee seemed like a crude prank, but as the crazy culmination of four off-kilter guitar-driven tracks, it fits perfectly.
13. “I Love Perth”
Still, you need to end the album on something more upbeat, and while this version of Wowee Zowee has eliminated many of the filler songs, some nonsense isn’t a bad thing to have on a Pavement album. To finish, we’ll go with this single from the Pacific Trim EP about Malkmus’ fondness for the titular Australian city. It’s pure fluff, but it’s engaging fluff that only Pavement could produce with any real skill.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy the toss-off songs on Wowee Zowee, but so many of them feel too one-note, even as a joke. It’s fun to scream “We got the money!” along with Malkmus, but it’s all just a little too silly to keep around.
No one really needed to hear Pavement do a slower-tempo take on hardcore, and I suspect even Pavement knew this themselves when making “Serpentine Pad.” This would have been a fun B-side, but it has no real business being on a proper album.
Another rootsy (by Pavement standards) number, this song just kind of ambles along and wraps up pretty quickly without making much of an impression. The band explores similar ideas elsewhere on the album, and they all lead to songs that are melodically and structurally more interesting than “Extradition,” so this doesn’t make the cut.
“Best Friend’s Arm”
Again, we have a song that probably would have made a killer B-side. This, more than any other song recorded during the Wowee Zowee sessions, seems intent on recapturing the twisted nature of the band’s early singles, but that’s easier said than done.
There’s an idea for a good Pavement song here, but it never really develops into something substantial. Few were as adept as Pavement were at doing weird songs for the sake of doing them, but this veers too closely to weird and slight to keep around. It does have the best song title for any Pavement song, though.
Nope. Sorry, Spiral, but this is just flat-out bad. This ended the original album with a skronky whimper, and there’s nowhere else for it here or anywhere else in the Pavement catalog other than the trash bin.