Welcome to an alternate universe, one in which Pavement's critically applauded debut 'Slanted and Enchanted' didn't happen in 1992. Instead, imagine that Stephen Malkmus, Scott Kannberg and Gary Young had recorded an entirely different set of songs and released them on the very same week as The Beastie Boys' 'Check Your Head'. 'The Secret History, Vol. 1' is a glimpse into that world. It's a vision we've seen before, of course, with many of the thirty tracks presented here previously turning up on the 2002 'Luxe and Reduxe' release of 'Slanted and Enchanted'. However, when presented in isolation and curated in a different way, rather than simply being bonus content, these songs form something more important than simply a curio to their parent album. They are a real alternative to that record, fuelled by the same youthful optimism and counter-culture bravado; this really is a parallel view of 1992.
Domino have boldly stated that this is the first in a series of 5 accompanying albums for Pavement's pre-existing studio output. It's an interesting concept that, judging by the strength of this material, will pay off. The big question really remains though: if 'Slanted and Enchanted' is commonly understood to have been one of the most influential albums of the nineties, how would 'Secret History' have fared in its place? The thirty songs are split pretty evenly between studio outtakes, b-sides, and Peel Sessions on the one hand, and then a live show from Brixton. As you'd expect, the live recording is where the majority of crossover with 'Slanted and Enchanted' can be found. The show is great for its energetic live reading of material that had gained cult status since its recording. It would make a worthy live record on its own and essentially inhabits its own disc on this release.
It's those preceding songs that offer the alternative to 'Slanted and Enchanted', though; bar the 7" version of 'Summer Babe' and a couple of versions of 'Here' this is a completely different Pavement record. I'd also contest that if the band's debut had included brooding slacker anthem 'So Stark (You're A Skyscraper)' or The Pixies-esque and incendiary 'Baptist Blacktick' it would have been just as influential. There's very little here that feels substandard or below par. In fact, 'Nothing Ever Happens' suggests a slightly more polished and less confrontational sound that Malkmus and his band could have chosen to explore. A personal highlight is 'Circa 1762' which balances the noise and feedback with an imaginative lyric that stands amongst the best of Pavement's output.
Perhaps it's that song that also epitomises why Pavement were so important in the context of early nineties Indie-Rock. "I was in a three-piece band, but there were no strings", Malkmus sings. It's the creative freedom that he's referring to that makes Pavement a joy to listen to, perhaps more so than ever today when albums as confidently unshackled from the considerations of record companies seem an increasingly rare beast.
The more cynical listener could accuse this release of recycling material that's, for the most part, already been released from the archive. However, I genuinely think 'Secret History' presents these songs in a way that they stand confidently on their own, rather than playing second fiddle to an anniversary release. That they're being released on vinyl for the first time is also a bonus for the Pavement faithful. For the uninitiated, this isn't a grab bag of forgettable rarities, instead think of it as the best album you've never heard from 1992, because when it comes to it, 'Secret History' really is that good.
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