Sunday, May 22, 2011

May 22: Pavement, "Summer Babe (Winter Version)"

Artist: Pavement
Song: "Summer Babe (Winter Version)"
Album: Slanted And Enchanted
Year: 1992

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Throughout the course of music history, many genre names have been pushed so far and wide that they become little more than a "catch all" term, as opposed to actually defining a style of music.  Whether it is the term "pop" or "hardcore," one can find plenty of examples of songs and bands that have been given such labels that in no way fit with the other groups to that style.  However, there is perhaps no definition of a musical sound that has been more over-used than when critics cannot figure out a sound, so they fall back and label it as "alternative rock."  The fact that the term has been used for bands ranging from R.E.M. to Smashing Pumpkins proves that it is an undefined term, and yet it has perhaps never been more inaccurately used than when speaking of the band Pavement.  Bringing a musical approach and sonic chaos that is unlike almost any other band in history, whatever term one uses to define their sound cannot be used elsewhere.  Largely responsible for bringing the "lo-fi" sound back to the forefront of music, it was the bands' full length debut, 1992's Slanted And Enchanted, that seemed to come out of nowhere to capture a dedicated following.  Every track on the album erupts with a unique, fresh sound, and one can easily understand just why Pavement remains such an important part of music history by experiencing their 1992 single, "Summer Babe (Winter Version)."

Within seconds of "Summer Babe (Winter Version)" beginning, one becomes completely captivated by the musical arrangement, as there is a unique intrigue that can be found within the circling, aggressive sound.  This distinctive tone is set into place by the guitars of Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg, and their paired guitar sound has a tone that sets it far apart from any of their peers.  The level of distortion is absolutely perfect, and the mood within their playing brings to mind bands ranging from Joy Division to Dinosaur Jr. to The Fall, and it is likely the fact that their influences were so diverse that they were able to capture such a sound.  It is the way in which there seems to be a melancholy mood within the soaring guitar progression that makes "Summer Babe (Winter Version)" such an unforgettable song, and the rhythm section works in perfect compliment to this sound.  Bassist Mark Ibold is far more forward in the mix than is tradition, and yet it is the thump of his playing that pushes the song forward, and enhances the downtrodden, yet strangely hopeful feel of the music.  The final piece, drummer Gary Young, seems to bounce across the verses, before diving at full power and speed on the other sections, giving "Summer Babe (Winter Version)" a fantastic shift in sound.  It is the way in which all of the musicians work together to build the mood and tension that makes "Summer Babe (Winter Version)" so amazing, and within the song, one can hear the blueprint for a large number of bands that would find success in their wake.

It is in the vocals of Stephen Malkmus where one can most clearly hear just how influential a band Pavement was throughout the 1990's, as his mostly spoken style and rather detached attitude would fuel countless bands that followed.  However, though his style would be copied, his voice is completely unique, and one cannot help but connect with his vocal delivery.  Working in perfect sync with the rhythm section, Malkmus presents the vocals with an almost "beat poet" style, and this is where most of the connections to Mark E. Smith come into play.  Yet this comparison is rather inaccurate, as Malkmus' vocal style is far more clear and clean, and there is also a great deal of melody to be found within his performance.  Furthermore, Malkmus' singing fits in perfectly with the band, and he is not trying to sing apart from them or over them.  It is this blending of sounds that makes Pavement so fantastic, and the almost cryptic lyrics manage to seamlessly fit with the rest of the elements on "Summer Babe (Winter Version)."  Malkmus' writing is as distinctive as one can find anywhere, as his words often seem to make little sense with one another.  However, it is the odd images he paints, as well as the way in which the words work rhythmically with the rest of the song that is significant, and it is much the reason that "Summer Babe (Winter Version)" has become one of the most highly revered songs in music history.

Truth be told, there is a very specific reason that the "winter version" notation was given to the version of "Summer Babe" that was released on Slanted And Enchanted.  Shortly before Pavement moved to Matador Records, they recorded and released the song "Summer Babe" on Drag City Records.  That label soon folded, and the group recorded a new, slightly different take of the song, and gave it the added title.  Yet it is the second version that not only became far better known, but was a more complete and higher quality recording, though there are not many differences between the two takes.  Regardless of this circumstance, "Summer Babe (Winter Version)" found its way to quite regular "college radio" airplay throughout the early 1990's, and the group represents the "underground" music scene better than anyone else from that era.  The fact that the band seemed at their best when they were purposefully ignoring the trends and norms of every other genre is a testament to their brilliantly unique talents, and even after nearly twenty years, Slanted And Enchanted remains a breathtaking musical achievement.  Every song on the album almost overflows with energy and emotion, and one can cite the record as one of the most important in what would become the inaccurately titled "alternative rock" boom of that era.  Finding a perfect balance between melody and attitude, there has simply never been another recording quite like Pavement's 1992 single, "Summer Babe (Winter Version)."

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