L.A.'s Desert Origins
"You can never quarantine the past," Stephen Malkmus sings on Pavement's second album, Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, which Matador Records has reissued with remastered sound and almost 40 bonus tracks one decade after its original release.
However, this deluxe edition, which follows a similar reissue of the band's infamous debut, Slanted & Enchanted, does have an unfortunate quarantine effect: In canonizing an album that's only 10 years old, this reissue threatens to lock these rambunctious songs safely in the past and consign their powerful ironies to a long-gone era.
On the other hand, perhaps these two reissues were all part of Pavement's master plan. Malkmus was acutely aware of the band's rock roots and their place within the '90s alternative-rock boom. So a big, deluxe reissue seems appropriate as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the reigning rock narrative that requires such repackaging on significant anniversaries.
Ten years on, Crooked Rain Crooked Rain is an intricately multifaceted and gloriously haphazard album: Approach it from one side and you'll find a meditation on suburban musical tastes; from another side, an examination of California culture as potent as a Joan Didion essay; from yet another, a wiseacre attempt at mainstream success. One of the album's more compelling themes, however, is its blinkered obsession with rock music in general and specifically with the band's own place within the larger mid-'90s alternative scene. On songs such as "Cut Your Hair," "Newark Wilder," and the truncated epic "Fillmore Jive," Malkmus worries over the increasing specialization in popular music, the explosion of so many disposable bands, and fans' burgeoning obscurantism, which has yet to die out completely.
But Pavement took it further than that by incorporating direct allusions to other artists into their songs: "Silence Kit" cribs the melody from Buddy Holly's "Everyday," and the new liner notes describe "5-4=Unity" as "a Dave Brubeck tribute song." "Range Life" ends with a Billy Squier riff, but not before Malkmus pokes fun at two then-reigning alternative bands, Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots.
This reissue offers a disk and a half of surprisingly focused bonus tracks, including numerous early takes with original drummer Gary Young. "5-4=Unity" originally had vocals, which were wisely cut from the album version, and "Range Life" apparently wasn't written as a Gram Parsons-style country-rock track. While these bonuses are intriguing for the glimpse of what might have been, they do nothing to support the commonly held opinion that Pavement suffered from Young's loss. Other extras reveal Pavement's conflicted fascination with R.E.M.: Their version of Reckoning's "Camera" is surprisingly tender, but "Unseen Power of the Picket Fence" straddles the line between tribute and parody.
Perhaps we had Pavement wrong all along. During their heyday, they were seen as smirking brats coolly detached from their world. But listening to Crooked Rain Crooked Rain 10 years later, it becomes startlingly apparent that Pavement's much-remarked-upon irony was either not as thorough as once suspected or only one shade in a complex palette of emotion and curiosity. -- Stephen Deusner
Handsome Boy Modeling School
Handsome Boy Modeling School's 1999 debut album, So How's Your Girl?, sounded at the time like a one-off record, put together on a whim by producers Dan the Automator and Prince Paul with their circle of friends. It was endearingly loose and rambling, tied together by a reference to obscure TV comedy Get a Life, phony aliases, goofy outfits, and reliance on guest stars.
The follow-up, White People (probably not an allusion to Allan Gurganus' short-story collection), picks up exactly where its predecessor left off, employing the same educational concept, some of the same guest stars (Father Guido Sarducci, the ever-reliable De La Soul), and even the same beats. But the skits and the jokes don't seem quite as funny on this 200-level course, and the album sounds dated, often tired.
At times, it seems like Dan the Automator and Prince Paul are trying too hard to wrangle a humorously diverse roster of cameos, as on the first single, "The World's Gone Bad," which features Del the Funky Homosapien, Barrington Levy, and Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos. With its reggae-derived beat and Del's exceedingly fluid flow, it sounds too much like Dan the Automator's other side project, Gorillaz. The meandering "Rock and Roll (Could Never Hip-Hop Like This) Part 2," which bears no similarity to "Part 1" on How's Your Girl?, pits members of Afrika Bambaataa and Linkin Park against each other in service to some vague idea about Caucasian contributions to African-American music.
Not every collaboration, however, is so fruitless. The R&B-flavored "I've Been Thinking" features a soulful performance by Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) that reveals the singer's heretofore unglimpsed versatility. Surprisingly, Jack Johnson's laid-back, no-fuss delivery on "Breakdown" blends perfectly with Dan the Automator and Prince Paul's beats, and former Faith No More frontman Mike Patton makes the most of his five minutes, turning "Are You Down With It" inside out and outside in with his faux-sinister half-rapping, half-singing delivery.
Still, despite these splashes of color and personality, White People remains, as its title suggests, basically vanilla. • -- SD