Pavement: Wowee Zowee (1995)

This album was such a huge disappointment when I first heard it (apparently 25 years ago today). Their first album, Slanted & Enchanted, was on my "this-record-changed-my-life" shortlist (and indeed, I gave it it's own chapter in my book, which I'd still love for you to check out if you haven't yet). The follow-up, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, was nearly as great, perhaps marginally less novel and stunning but with some sweeping high points.


But Wowee Zowee was a mess.  A much longer record -- still a single-CD, but presumably a double album had it come out back in the pre-CD vinyl days -- it was all over the place stylistically, while lacking the killer first-listen stand-out like "Summer Babe" or "Trigger Cut" or "Silence Kid" or "Cut My Hair." Stephen Malkmus started displaying the inner jam-band guitar wonk that would emerge in his later solo career, songs often meandering aimlessly; the ballads seemed dull, and the noisy shouters seemed abrasive without the hook-laden catharsis of, say, "Conduit For Sale."  In some sense, it felt reminiscent of the White Album (albeit largely from a single songwriter, with guitarist Scott Kannberg/Spiral Stairs getting few contributions), sprawling and unfocused, but without the magic touch that Paul, John, and George brought to that erratic masterpiece.

But in the true tradition of the "rewards repeated listens" cliche that rock critics pull out for albums they don't really like but think they should, it grew on me.  Gradually at first, then in a sudden rush of "damn, this thing is fantastic, what was I thinking???" delirium.  I recognized that songs like "AT&T" and "Black Out" were every bit as immediate and wonderful as the highlights of the prior records, and my initial confusion at the overall package had blinded me to their brilliance. The hidden charm in songs like "Grounded" and "Grave Architecture" emerged, while the single "Rattled by the Rush," though still a bit off-putting in its jagged spikiness, finally sunk in.

Part of my delinquent delight in the album came from reconfiguring it to better suit my taste.  I found that a number of contemporaneous singles and EPs included outtakes I preferred to some of the album tracks (particularly "Easily Fooled" and "Painted Soldiers"); the follow-up EP in particular offered much lighter and catchier fare (i.e. "Give It A Day," "I Love Perth"). So I burned my own version, swapping out a few of the tracks that resisted my efforts to enjoy them, adding in some of the catchier outtakes (including a few more from Kannberg, which may be less visionary that Malkmus's work but are a bit more straightforward pop-ish songs), and re-sequencing to give it a better flow (i.e. I think one of the original's biggest failures is opening with "We Dance," a resigned, sleepy tune that immediately turned me off on the whole album on early listens, yet which works remarkably well as an album-closing coda, like the White Album's "Good Night")
Is it wrong/obnoxious to mess with the artist's vision? Shouldn't we sit through the record from start to finish as the band intended? I suppose. At some point in my life I might have viewed this as sacrilege. But it's also one of my favorite indulgences of the digital era. Sometimes you just need to cut an over-long or self-indulgent multi-LP package to a better-edited single album.  (See, e.g., the Clash's Sandinista.) Sometimes, particularly in the case of 60s classics that did not include contemporaneous singles, an already great album is perfected by re-inserting those missing tracks (i.e. Revolver or Sgt. Pepper).  And nowadays, as bands open up the vaults with deluxe reissues, you can get more creative, designing an alternate version of the album that suits your personal preferences.
Here's my reimagined Wowee Zowee:

Comments

  1. I hadn't seen anyone do one of those "what if" edits for WZ that you always see for the White Album before. I'm wondering what I'd take out to get it single album length (Brinks Job, Extradition, hmm…) but this redo is nice, and keeps it roughly the same length. The vinyl was 3-sided so it wasn't quite a double. But they had enough good extras that it could have been.

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    1. Turns out their label did an edit themselves, making this distilled 8 song version as a promo:

      Rattled By The Rush
      Black Out
      Serpentine Pad
      Motion Suggests
      Father To A Sister Of Thought
      Grave Architecture
      AT & T
      Half A Canyon

      2 songs that made Matador's cut didn't make yours.

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    2. I think there'd be some consensus around maybe Black Out, AT&T, and Rattled as the most obvious "hits", with more controversy beyond that. I think the sampler is actually a more "accurate" representation of the longer album; if they'd just gone with the poppy stuff an left off the more offbeat tracks it would bury the eclecticism of the album (for better and worse). Kinda odd this was a 3-sided LP when they clearly had some great songs left over for the b-sides.

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