When Pavement released Wowee Zowee in the spring of 1995, legions of rock critics and Generation X fans were disappointed. Three years earlier, Pavement had jumped into the front ranks of the post-Nevermind indie rock explosion with their raw and superb debut, Slanted & Enchanted.
In 1994 they smashed any fear of a sophomore slump with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, even getting a brush of mainstream success with their single, “Cut Your Hair.” But instead of making a run for the top of the indie hierarchy, Pavement took a large step away from Crooked Rain’s classic rock-meets-indie rock sound, and produced the experimental, spontaneous, meandering and altogether unexpected Wowee Zowee. Over a decade later, critics and fans alike now have a chance to see how good they really had it – how good Pavement really had it. With Matador’s release of the expanded double-disc Wowee Zowee: Sordid Sentinels Edition, everyone can rediscover an album they never really discovered in the first place.
Wowee Zowee’s ‘all over the place’ nature may have made it a less-than-accessible record in 1995, but now the album just shows how many things Pavement could do, and do well. Instead of producing a dull retread of Crooked Rain, or an ill-advised ‘return’ to the low-fi sound of Slanted, Pavement kept growing and went for the gusto.
The band’s slack-rock vibe was hardly MIA on the record, with the mix of Crooked Rain’s classic-slacker and the roaming ethos of Wowee Zowee best epitomized in “Grave Architecture”; it could also be found on such tracks as the esoteric anthem “Brinx Job,” the enthusiastic “Serpentine Pad,” and the single, “Rattled by the Rush.” Steven Malkmus’ sad poetry was in abundance as well, blending perfectly with the traveling, ‘journey’ nature of the album on such songs as “Fight This Generation,” “AT&T,” and “Grounded.” Wowee Zowee could spend too much time meandering, such as with the excessively slacker “Extradition” or the six-minute-long “Half a Canyon,” which went from alt-country to indie-rock to slacker-fun and back again, but for the most part, the wandering soul of this record is a real prize.
Wowee Zowee: Sordid Sentinels Edition is Matador’s third expanded Pavement re-release, following 2002’s Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe and 2004’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: LA’s Desert Origins. Like the first two, Sordid Sentinels contains 30+ extra tracks, but unfortunately, this extra material does not measure up to that found on the prior two double-discs. Luxe & Reduxe was able to draw on a wealth of early releases and live material, and Desert Origins could tap a plethora of b-sides and post-Slanted sessions (both also had the John Peel studio recordings that virtually every American indie act of the nineties has put out by now). Sordid Sentinels has fewer outtakes, singles, compilations and concerts to draw from, leaving its extra material largely a jumble of whatever could be found, with little continuity from one to the next, save for an unexceptional Australian radio session.
There are still gems to be found, such as “Painted Soldiers” (off The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy soundtrack), and some of the live in-studio work for Steve Lamacq and the BBC, but the best additional material is easily the entire Pacific Rim EP. Containing some of their strangest – and funniest – work, this less-than-widely-released EP was brought out on short notice for their 1996 Australian tour. In fact, it was only made at all because David Berman of The Silver Jews had booked studio time to work with a few members of Pavement for his band, but soon left in frustration, and the rest of the boys chose not to squander the already-bought session time. Its inclusion on Sordid Sentinels is a welcome find.
In the end, this re-issue, like the original, needs to be judged on its own merits, and not in comparison with the two albums that preceded it. The extra material may not match the quality of the prior re-releases, but this double-disc also relies less on additional material.
Pavement never claimed nor wanted to be the next Nirvana, anymore than Cobain claimed or wanted to be the next Dylan, and Wowee Zowee ensured that. But the Stockton, California band did end up being to the nineties what IRS-era R.E.M. was to the eighties: ‘the’ critically acclaimed independent-label band of the decade that found some commercial success as well. Many people will say that they did it without even trying, but Wowee Zowee: Sordid Sentinels Edition proves they were. What’s more, it proves they were succeeding.