Certain Songs #1485: Pavement – “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence”

Album: No Alternative
Year: 1993

As it turned out, the first song that anybody heard from the Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain sessions was kind of a goof that was on a compilation album called No Alternative.

Part of the early 90s Red Hot AIDS Benefit series of albums, No Alternative featured a killer line of alt-rock stars — Matthew Sweet, The Breeders, Soul Asylum, Beastie Boys & Smashing Pumpkins to name a few — doing original songs, covers and live versions. These days, it’s probably most remembered for having a killer Nirvana hidden track that was rumoured to be called “I Hate Myself and Want to Die,” but was named “Verse Chorus Verse” at the time, and is now known as “Sappy.”

But despite all of these other heavyweights, my favorite track was the one by Pavement, because it sported a slow-moving and ominous riff as it goofed on a thing I held dear:

Some bands I like to name check
And one of them is R.E.M.
Classic songs with a long history
Southern boys just like you and me
R – E – M!

Are you even kidding me? This wasn’t like Paul Westerberg lauding the hitherto unknown Alex Chilton; this was Stephen Malkmus acknowledging R.E.M. — at that point one of the biggest bands in the world — and their role in not only helping to galvanize the 1980s alt-rock scene which clearly influenced him, but also as subtext, how well they were handling their success.

But of course, Malkmus being Malkmus, he couldn’t resist both obfuscating the timeline for the sake of a rhyme, nor spouting a controversial opinion.

Flashback to 1983
Chronic Town was their first EP
Later on came Reckoning
Finster’s art, and titles to match
“So. Central Rain”, “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville”
“Harborcoat”, “Pretty Persuasion”
You were born to be a camera
“Time After Time” was my least favorite song
“Time After Time” was my least favorite song

While I am willing to assume that the teenaged Malkmus didn’t hear 1982’s Chronic Town until 1983 and I am willing to forgive him for ignoring Murmur altogether — and loved the Howard Finster namedrop — I need to point out that “Time After Time” was my most favorite song from Reckoning, so he’s just dead wrong, and I will write a strongly-worded blog post explaining exactly why at some point in the next year so.

Meanwhile, the guitars are beginning to feedback and squeal, more noise than on any R.E.M. album ever, which just adds to the fun, as well as a reminder that R.E.M. was just one ingredient in their unique stew, until the whole song comes crashing to a halt so that Malkmus can give his impressions about Messers Stipe, Berry, Mills & Buck.

The singer, he had long hair
And the drummer he knew restraint
And the bass man he had all the right moves
And the guitar player was no saint

So far so good: I love R.E.M., Malkmus loves R.E.M. You love R.E.M. We all love R.E.M. But now things are about to get ridiculous, as Malkmus goes from literal to metaphorical while upping their historical significance to extreme levels.

So lets go way back to the ancient times
When there were no 50 states
And on a hill there stands Sherman
Sherman and his mates

Wait. What?

And they’re marching through Georgia!
(We’re marching through Georgia!)
They’re marching through Georgia!
(G-G-G-G-Georgia!!!!)
They’re marching through Georgia!
(We’re marching through Georgia!)
Marching through Georgia
(G-G-G-G-Georgia!)

And they’re all having so much fun with this epic silliness, they do a second round, Malkmus breaking his voice on the call, the rest of the band shouting joyously shouting their response, until the song breaks down while Malkmus provides the kicker.

And there stands R.E.M.

Holy shit! What does that even mean? I’ve been thinking about his song for over a quarter-century, and I still can’t even hazard a guess. I mean, obviously, I’m supposed to take any of it literally, much less seriously, but still.

In any event, it doesn’t matter: I love this song for its playfulness and its specificity, as well as that dream-state ending. That said, it’s best experienced as a standalone: it wouldn’t have fit on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain in any way, shape or form.

Oh, in case you didn’t really believe any of it, they also recorded a cover of “Camera” where Malkmus provides his fandom bona fides by doing what any self-respecting early 80s R.E.M. fan would do: make up his own words.

“Unseen Power of the Picket Fence”

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