Pavement – Reflecting on the 25th Anniversary of “Wowee Zowee” - The Album Came Out on April 11, 1995 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, April 23rd, 2024  

Pavement – Reflecting on the 25th Anniversary of “Wowee Zowee”

The Album Came Out on April 11, 1995

Apr 17, 2020 Pavement Bookmark and Share

I volunteered to write a 25th anniversary piece on Pavement’s middle album, Wowee Zowee. For some reason I had noted the album’s release date as April 21, 1995, but it was actually released on April 11, 1995. Turns out the American landscape changed forever in those 10 days (more on that later). But if you choose to read this now, Wowee Zowee will be a little more than 25 years old when this is published. The album released right in the middle of four years I spent in Washington, D.C. Four years marked by a burgeoning indie rock scene and plenty of clubs from which to catch the best touring bands in the land. The Black Cat and the original 9:30 Club were the ones I frequented, though I wouldn’t catch Pavement for a few years further and in a different city.

Of course, D.C. also has a vibrant museum and art scene that we often availed ourselves of and typically at the price of free admission. Wowee Zowee was released in the middle of an eight-week run of a folk art exhibit titled Passionate Visions at the now defunct Corcoran Gallery. The exhibit focused on self-taught Southern artists, the most likely known to indie fans would be Howard Finster, who did the cover art for Talking Heads’ Little Creatures and whose Paradise Gardens home base was central in R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe” video. But more interesting to me were the pieces made of found objects: William Edmonson’s carved rocks, Purvis Young’s painted on fence boards and books, R.A. Miller’s cobbled together tin pieces and whirligigs, Sybil Gibson’s painted grocery bags. One artist’s work there focused on his paintings and drawings, but over time I have become more enamored of Thornton Dial Sr.’s massive collages.

Pavement’s (and therefore frontman Stephen Malkmus’) crowning achievement in Wowee Zowee has much in common with Dial’s most powerful works. Dial’s largest pieces are the size of the side of a Pullman freight car. Dial worked for the Pullman company manufacturing rail cars, so not surprisingly he was undaunted by scale. Though Dial is no longer with us, his works have been appropriately elevated to be displayed at the likes of the Metropolitan in New York and the High Museum in Atlanta. Standing up close to one of Dial’s pieces allows you to see the component parts as with a work titled “Victory in Iraq” where amongst other things Dial used barbed wire, a mannequin head, plastic spoons, stuffed animals, wire, paint, toy cars, and articles of clothing. Malkmus’s component parts consist of crying dads, Brazilian nuts, contract bridge, and gravy hearts. Up close, it makes little sense. But like Dial’s larger works, Wowee Zowee is best observed from further back and in one long take.

Put on a drawing board, Wowee Zowee is hard to suss out and no doubt Malkmus didn’t know where his own journey would take him. Like Dial’s monstrous works, the album has no stylistic synthesis or cohesiveness but somehow hangs together. It’s the shambolic bell curve apex to which Pavement’s other accoutrements hang. Two earlier albums that rage and rumble and two later ones that are cooly sophisticated in contrast, with Wowee Zowee existing in the Venn diagram middle of them all. To kick things off you get what on most any other album would be a closing track. “We Dance” sounds like Bowie and Bolan holding each other up in a final slow twirl at the end of the glam rock era. From there, things go all over the map. “We Dance” is immediately followed by “Rattled By the Rush,” the brash and bratty sister track to the prior album’s “Cut My Hair.”

Later on you get the scuzzy grunge of “Serpentine Pad” cozied up next to the laconic float of “Motion Suggests.” Those give way to likely my favorite Pavement track of all and if you’re a sucker for pedal steel in a rock song, “Father to a Sister of Thought” is a beautiful thing to behold. Other later album highlights include the laid back groove to unabashed freakout of “Grave Architecture,” while the dentist drill effects of “Half a Canyon” are upstaged by a mockery of The Three Stooges’ Curly’s signature “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.” Sandwiched between these is another indie gem in “Kennel District.” All told, the album is dense, dark, indecipherable, with moments of clarity, but compelling as a result.

Wowee Zowee didn’t land on a very interesting news day when it was released. The biggest headline I could dig up was former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s admission that the Vietnam war was a mistake. Not very enlightening. Eight days later, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killing 168 people in what is still the largest domestic terrorist act in American history. Twenty-five years on, the news is grimmer still. The Jacob Javits Center that Malkmus name checks in Wowee Zowee track “AT&T” is currently serving as a temporary COVID-19 hospital. Another sits in Central Park and the museums that house Dial’s work are closed—all across the country. Pavement’s anticipated reunion at the Primavera this summer is clearly at risk of being scuttled. Writing this on Easter, it’s not unfair to hope that when we finally get through this that it’s not just back to where we were, but that maybe some greater truth or reward lies on the other side.

I was a big Pavement fan back in the day, but I don’t really recall when it was that Wowee Zowee clicked for me. My recollection is that it was received by the community as something of the mess it is, but without the instant realization that it was a glorious one. I find little time these days to go back and listen to older music and can safely say I probably haven’t listened to any other Pavement album end to end in the past 15 years. But it never seems a waste of time to listen to the almost full hour of Wowee Zowee, which is the only real way to take it in. Like Dial’s most layered works, it yields little and lord knows he and Malkmus wouldn’t explain it to you. In the end, Wowee Zowee and works like Dial’s “Victory in Iraq” are easy to admire but maybe hard to fully comprehend. Like Malkmus, Dial was reluctant to explain and he ultimately said it best whenever he was asked: “You have my art, so you have my mind.” There you go.

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