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Pavement: Westing By Musket and Sextant

June 14, 2012

Pavement Westing by Musket and SextantRoll: 4-1-6
Album: Pavement, Westing By Musket and Sextant

Perhaps one of the oddest things about the 1990s was the emergence of a market for shitty rock. Not terribly well played or terribly well recorded and not taken terribly seriously. Willfully amateurish in a way that would embarrass even the most disenchanted punk band.

It’s all Dinosaur Jr.‘s fault, of course. If that band hadn’t given Lou Barlow‘s bedroom recordings an outlet (which would ultimately result in his quintessential bedroom band Sebadoh’s popularity) maybe Kurt Cobain wouldn’t have worn that Daniel Johnston t-shirt and no one would have given Guided By Voices’ backlog of lo-fi takes on Big Star a second look.

Certainly Drag City wouldn’t have been interested in releasing Pavement‘s second and third EPs based on their self-released Slay Tracks EP (1989) because UK group The Wedding Present probably wouldn’t have covered its song “Box Elder” and consequently John Peel wouldn’t have championed it.

But this is nothing to begrudge Dinosaur Jr. for. It’s merely an odd quirk in the annals of pop music history. And one for which we have to thank for Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, etc. Fully-fledged art rock classics we may never have heard otherwise.

Westing By Musket and Sextant is not, on the other hand, what you could consider a fully-fledged classic. Though not without many rather high points (the aforementioned “Box Elder”, “She Believes”, “Debris Slide”, “Perfect Depth”),  this compilation of their first three EPs and the original Summer Babe single falls into that “for completists and curiosity seekers” category.

In my opinion, anyway. Some people claim these recording are the pinnacle of Pavement’s career before they went off the boil and sold out. Though the idea that an album as abstract and haphazard as Brighten the Corners could be considered sell out move is an attitude that could only be held in the ’90s.

It’s the kind of thing we’d argue about at the record store. Around 1997 or ’98, I loathed this record as I did most of Sebadoh’s early catalogue. Listening to it now, I’m not sure why I was so deeply offended. I remember it being a collection of tinny, distorted, tossed off acoustic guitar ghettoblaster recordings which it isn’t at all.

Though many tracks are stripped down to a duo, it’s really not too far away from being a slightly lower-fidelity version of Slanted and Enchanted. It’s pretty listenable as far as lo-fi indie goes and there’s a certain genius already evident in Steven Malkmus and Spiral Stairs’ songs. The ideas aren’t as “polished” as they would be the band’s later records, but they’re all at play, ready to be honed.

Westing is chock full of sloppy rhythms that barely hold up melodic poetry saturated in fuzz and feedback. These are all elements you could trace back to Velvet Underground or The Fall or Jesus and Mary Chain but there’s not a note here which isn’t immediately identifiable as pure Pavement. Which is something few bands have. Sebadoh had it as well.

I suspect what I was actually upset about was that all my efforts at creating immaculately crafted punk-pop versions of Sgt. Pepper’s or Pet Sounds was coming to naught when all these lo-fi asshats were recording their farts and getting famous.

Of course, there was more too it than that. Those guys all must have left their bedrooms now and then to get noticed. My hatred for this record must have been mere jealousy because, though not always a pleasant listen, Westing is nothing to scoff at in terms of lo-fi and indie rock history.

That said, I know I’ll probably never, ever listen to this again. It’s a curiosity for the completist’s shelf and not the stereo, really.

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