#10: Tracy Chapman, ‘Tracy Chapman’ (1988) vs. Pavement, ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ (1994)

Amid the hair metal and synth pop of the late 1980s, political folk was reborn in the unlikely form of Tracy Chapman with her debut album. It was like Greenwich Village Bob Dylan had come back as a 24-year-old black woman. The album was a huge hit and deserved to be: clean and simple folk tunes (with a couple love songs tossed in) that earworm into your head and stay there. It’s a clear statement of purpose railing against inequality and injustice. It’s also occasionally chilling, such as the domestic abuse tale of “Behind the Wall”, performed a cappella. It’s depressing to realize the problems she highlights are as real today as they were then.

Is it too obvious to say “Fast Car” is my favourite? It’s a perfect short story about a young woman clinging to hope as she trades in one useless companion (her deadbeat dad) for another one (the deadbeat owner of the fast car – whom in 1988 I assumed was a guy but that’s less obvious to me now). That song is so damn good it was everywhere in 1988 and even today kids like my daughter discover it and love it (I honestly had nothing to do with it – she just found it on Spotify one day and started playing it all the time).

While it is abundantly clear what Tracy Chapman is talking about in her music, most of the time I have no idea what Pavement is talking about; or, more specifically, I have no idea what eccentric band leader and songwriter Stephen Malkmus is talking about. And based on my reading, neither does anyone else. Here’s what Pitchfork has to say in their review of Crooked Rain:

But really, though Crooked Rain references the burbs and the music biz, with Pavement it’s the sound and feel that matter, not the words or themes. Quoting lyrics to get to the heart of Pavement is misguided. Go online and print some out and you’ll see that, taken on their own, they’re generally meaningless.

Just to prove how true this is, the last song on the album – the awesome guitar jam “Fillmore Jive” ends with an incomplete sentence: “Their throats are filled with…”. You gotta love a band with the Chutzpah to let that be their last word.

Crooked Rain is confusing and disorienting (though it’s considered a “mainstream” effort by an otherwise very alternative band), and it is awesome. Trippy and weird. Sometimes it’s loud and abrasive, sometimes it’s melodic and mellow. Every song is unique. My favourite (at the moment, anyway) is “Range Life”, in which the narrator meanders through his California suburb on a skateboard, pondering existence.

I’ve spent so much time listening to “Fast Car” and “Range Life”, it’s starting to sound like a conversation in my head between Tracy’s restless dreamer and Stephen’s aimless slacker. Just for kicks, here’s how it plays out using actual lyrics from two phenomenal but totally unrelated songs:

Tracy Chapman: You’ve got a fast car

Stephen Malkmus: I want a range life

TC: Say remember when we were driving, driving in your car / Speeds so fast it felt like I was drunk

SM: Run from the pigs, the fuzz / The cops, the heat

TC: Maybe together we can get somewhere

SM: Don’t worry / We’re in no hurry

TC: I’d always hoped for better / Thought maybe together you and me’d find it

SM: Until you snort it up or shoot it down / You’re never gonna feel free

TC: We gotta make a decision / Leave tonight or live and die this way

SM: Hey, you gotta pay your dues / Before you pay the rent

TC: I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone

SM: If I could settle down, Then I would settle down

Weird. That worked even better than I imagined (Pitchfork should try it).

It also makes me feel bad because it makes me root for Tracy, but this battle isn’t looking good for her. As near-perfect as her album is, my enjoyment level on listen #20 is the exact same as on listen #1. Crooked Rain, on the other hand, gets more interesting with every listen. The trajectory is clear – in art, over the long term, the strange puzzle beats the statement of purpose.


WINNER: Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (5 points)


80s: 18

90s: 23

80s: 47
90s: 58

Next week’s post – #9: Richard and Linda Thompson, ‘Shoot Out the Lights’ (1982) vs. Beck, ‘Odelay’ (1996)

#24: X, ‘Los Angeles’ (1980) vs. Pavement, ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ (1992)

What a maddeningly awesome battle this turned out to be: awesome because these are two astounding debut albums of beautiful noise from uncompromising indie bands, and maddening because I hate to pick a winner…and, by extension, a loser.

“WHAT!?” I can hear the indie rock connoisseurs shout. “How is this even a contest?!”

I understand the outrage. Not many people even know about X any more. Meanwhile, the reputation of Pavement in general and Slanted and Enchanted in particular is unassailable. Many folks who know music better than most will tell you this is not merely one of the best albums of the 1990s, but perhaps THE album of the 1990s (you’ll have to take it up with Rolling Stone why it’s way down at #24).

And, yes, it’s amazing. A messy, wild collection of let’s-try-anything noisy sonic experiments that works extraordinarily well. Stephen Malkmus writes mind-bending tunes, can do anything on a guitar and sometimes sings exactly like Lou Reed, which I greatly appreciate. (I thought often about Lou and his Velvet Underground during this battle as it’s hard to imagine either of these bands without the influence of those 1960 pioneers of uncompromising beautiful noise.)

But then I put on X’s Los Angeles and oh boy.

I don’t like punk but I LOVE this – 28 minutes of propulsive punk perfection about the seedy underbelly of their home city, full of things you don’t expect from a punk band: poetic lyrics, rockabilly guitar, wacky boy-girl harmonizing vocals, and even organ courtesy of the Doors’ Ray Manzarek, who discovered the band and produced the album. It’s unbelievably fun, catchy and easy to listen to, even if it does get a titch disturbing at times with its matter-of-fact exploration of nasty subjects like sexual violence, racism and heroin addiction.

So am I really going to do the unthinkable and pick AGAINST Pavement? Yes.

I’m sorry, indie rock connoisseurs, I know it’s madness. Just please do me a favour: once you’ve scooped your jaw off the floor, spend some time banging your head to “Nausea” and “The World’s a Mess; It’s in My Kiss” and maybe you’ll understand a little tiny bit.


WINNER: X, Los Angeles (3 points)


80s: 11

90s: 16

80s: 20
90s: 31

Next week’s battle – #23: Black Uhuru, Red (1981) vs. The Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream (1993)