In the first part of this two-part celebration of Matador Records, I selected five essential albums from the label’s post-millennial releases. Today, it’s time to pluck from the label’s formative years, eschewing the embarrassing baby photos and going for the Little League baseball trophies. With all due respect to Bardo Pond, here are five of the very best records from Matador’s first decade.
Cat Power – Moon Pix (1998)
These days, Chan Marshall is a professional to the highest degree– her records are full of polished, minimalist blues laments, highlighting her gorgeously dusky voice. At shows, she takes the mic and lets her competent touring band do the heavy lifting. As inspiring as its been to see her get it together over the past few years, I still pine for the days in which she was batshit crazy.
Recorded with members of The Dirty Three– including Jim White, probably the most underrated drummer on Earth– Moon Pix reportedly was born during the aftermath of Marshall’s breakup with singer/songwriter Bill Callahan, then known as the driving force behind Smog. As if her previous records weren’t emotionally bare enough, Moon Pix is rubbed straight to the bone, with Marshall’s voice wounded and weary at every turn. From the instantly-recognizable backwards drumbeat (sampled from “Paul Revere”) of “American Flag” to the final dreary notes and audible sigh of “Peking Saint” and everywhere in between, Marshall ups the ante for the confessional singer/songwriter genre. She croons, “Can’t you see that we’re going to hell?” in “Back of Your Head”. She pays homage to Bob Dylan on “Moonshiner”. She even turns a sentiment of praise into a tender melancholy lament; you know you’re broken when not even God himself can get you to lighten up.
Over the rudimentary piano playing that underscores “Colors and the Kids”, Marshall quietly sings, “It’s so hard to go into the city/’Cause you want to say, ‘Hey, I love you’ to everybody”. Moon Pix is the sound of a woman who was let down by every single person she loved, the sound of the quiet room she sat and talked to herself in because she had nobody that cared enough to listen. But we all were listening, weren’t we?
Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)
Stuart Murdoch is like the bookish, nerdy kid who you sat beside of in your Honors English class. He always dressed in anoraks and argyle sweaters, was always the first to raise his hand, and seemed woefully boring until you caught him saying the funniest thing you’ve ever heard about the substitute teacher under his breath. Belle and Sebastian’s American debut displays Murdoch’s introverted cleverness in spades, with song titles like “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” being the vessels for such lyrics as, “Nobody writes them like they used to/So it might as well be me”.
The apex of the twee movement, If You’re Feeling Sinister tastefully applies it’s small arsenal of instruments in the most tasteful ways, which would come across as too manicured and precious if not for Murdoch’s immense songwriting prowess. Hyper-observant (and hilarious) details pop up, like the fact Hilary from the title-track was into both S&M and bible studies, and the life-changing wet dream of “Judy and the Dream of Horses”. Belle and Sebastian stepped in rarefied air with If You’re Feeling Sinister, creating a timeless chamber-pop record that succeeded in being literary without sounding pompous or dull.
Guided by Voices – Alien Lanes (1995)
Bee Thousand always gets the “best-of-genre” love when looking back on the daunting catalog of Bob Pollard, but their official Matador debut, delivered a scant ten months after its predecessor, is the true high water mark of Guided by Voices. Starting out with the classic “A Salty Salute”, the 41-minute running time (and not a second over) of Alien Lanes plays like a highlight reel not only for GBV, but indie-rock in general.
Jumping from the grungy “Watch Me Jumpstart” to the moody rock of “(I Wanna Be a) Dumbcharger” to the gothic Americana of “The Ugly Vision” with effortless ease, Pollard had the Midas Touch virtually every time he pressed the “record” button. With no song even coming close to overstaying its welcome, Alien Lanes is a Halloween basket full of bite-sized treats without a cheap starlight mint in sight. “Motor Away,” “My Valuable Hunting Knife,” and “King and Caroline,” buried in the middle of the record, are better than a lot of lo-fi band’s best efforts. “Game of Pricks” is even better, a 1 ½-minute, goosebump-inducing pop-rock stunner, so bright and undeniably full of melody that it rightfully deserves the distinction of being one of the very best rock songs of the past fifteen years.
The late-album standouts, the laidback pop of “Little Whirl” and downcast ballad “Chicken Blows”, are almost sabotaged by Pollard’s intentional self-parody, but the key word there is “almost”; his gift of melody manifests itself so irresistibly in these two songs that they can’t help but shine in spite of it all. It’s indicative of Alien Lanes’ status of being an All-Time Great rock album: Robert Pollard couldn’t do any wrong. Even when he tried.
Pavement – Wowee Zowee (1995)
If Stuart Murdoch is the nerdy kid in your Honors English class, then Malkmus is the overachieving slacker. Neither the teacher’s pet in the front nor among the bullies and stoners in the back, Malkmus sat in the middle of class, usually either asleep or doodling while pretending to take notes. He always looked bored, and sometimes he even skipped class, but he aced every test and apathetically made it through his entire high school career with a 3.98 GPA.
Like most Pavement fans, I’m sure I could make a fairly convincing case for any Pavement record being their best. Slanted and Enchanted practically invented indie-rock. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a generational relic. Brighten the Corners was their big step into maturity. And of course, Terror Twilight was their swan song, the point where their arch wittiness transformed into genuine emotion, the impenetrable smartassedness making room for a little… heart. So where does Wowee Zowee fit into the equation? Wowee Zowee was the best Pavement record because it was the most daring Pavement record; bravely throwing everything against the wall and seeing what stuck.
We’ve all seen Beavis and Butthead’s infamous critique of “Rattled by the Rush,” where Beavis implores the band to try harder during the video for probably the most Pavement-y song on the record. But while Malkmus and crew kept the illusion that they were shrugging their shoulders throughout their career, Wowee Zowee showed the band trying on more stylistic hats than ever before.
Opener “We Dance” hints at a country vibe, which later comes up on “Father to a Sister of Thought”. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. “Motion Suggests” is eerie art-pop, while “Fight This Generation” is a tender waltz that devolves into a jam session heavily featuring the cheesiest synth sound known to man. Of course, this is Pavement we’re talking about, and it wouldn’t be a Pavement record without Malkmus being a smartass. “AT & T” has a chorus of one word, and you should be able to correctly guess what it is within three chances. “Serpentine Pad” delivers a homage to The Fall (often cited as Pavement’s primary influence) while simultaneously taking the piss out of hardcore punk, creating an unlikely career highlight.
In addition to housing two of the best Malkmus-penned songs of Pavement’s career (the astounding guitar work of “Grounded” and “Pueblo” is still inspiring after 1 ½ decades), Wowee Zowee also contains Scott Kannberg (better known as Spiral Stairs) at his very best. Strutting closer “Western Homes” contains a swagger that Malkmus wasn’t interested in exploring in his songwriting, while the anthemic “Kennel District” stands toe-to-toe with even Malkmus’ best work. With Kannberg bringing his very best to the table with Malkmus following his creative spirit to new territory, Wowee Zowee was the point where Pavement felt like they were the best band in the world, and the parts of the world who had heard the record felt like it too.
Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville (1993)
You’ve heard everything about this record. The rumors that it was a song-for-song rebuttal of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. The legendary “blowjob queen” lyric. Everything. What I hear in Exile in Guyville is the voice of feminism, probably even moreso than the Riot Grrrl bands I grew up on like Bratmobile and Bikini Kill. You see, being as though the overwhelming majority of my friends are vastly intelligent young women, the former two bands were utterly inspiring in shaping my worldview, but Exile in Guyville— every word, verbatim– is how most of my friends actually talk. “I only ask because I’m a real cunt in spring.” “I know I don’t always realize how sleazy it is messing with these guys.” “I jump when you circle the cherry.” Every word, verbatim.
Exile captures all of the feelings of being a young woman in America and encases it inside of almost fifty-seven minutes of slapdash guitar-pop, all of the half-remembered hookups, lonely nights, and messy emotions. On the record’s best song, the timeless “Fuck and Run,” Phair wakes up after a night of casual sex and feels lonelier than if she would have spent the night at home watching Golden Girls reruns. She wonders aloud, “Whatever happened to a boyfriend? The kind of guy who wants to win you over? And whatever happened to a boyfriend? The kind of guy who makes love because he’s in it?” And although she cleverly winks, “Fuck and run, fuck and run. Ever since I was twelve,” her emotions are in full display. She wants a boyfriend. She wants all the stupid shit like letters and sodas.
A wise person once said, “Feminism is the radical idea that women are people, too”. Eschewing the politics and directly confronting sexism, Exile in Guyville succeeds in being a definitive perspective of feminism, because in it are the undistilled thoughts of a girl, not marketed to be oversexed like many female musicians, not in constant fear of appearing oversexed like others. Just a real-life woman, singing about being a real-life woman.