Go put on “Gold Soundz.” Sunny alterna-pop at it’s finest, sonically summing up that twentysomething drunken summer spent at the moon tower. Feel the UV rays coming from the speakers. Did you ever think you’d hear a version you’d want played at your funeral?
Astrid Swan, already no stranger to the covers scene, looked to the catalog of one of the most revered bands in alternative music and put it through her Finnish-pixie prism. Hits (Pavement For Girls) is the result, as varied as it may be. The first question that comes to the male mind while letting Swan’s icily-expansive interpretations seep their way in: is this really how Pavement sounds to women?
The title Hits is about as apropos for this collection of Stephen Malkmus-penned tunes as Steve Urkel would have been as Charlie Sheen’s replacement on “Two and a Half Men.” “Box Elder?” “Cream of Gold?” Swan didn’t just grab a copy of Quarantine the Past off the shelf at Best Buy and call herself a Pavement fan, although her fascination with the band is, she admits, recent. The nine song collection contains only one track from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, one of the seminal records of that decade, a strange choice that had to have been made with a purpose.
It is, coincidentally, high time for a Pavement tribute. The 2010 reunion tour cemented their status as beloved and influential, playing to the largest crowds of their career—oh, and appearing on “Ace of Cakes.” Now, a new Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks album has dropped. These events hardly seem serendipitous, but why would they? Swan’s timing couldn’t be more buzzworthy.
Her interpretations of Pavement catalogue are markedly different. Best Coast-y reverb-washed guitars start off the sparse cut from Pavement’s first EP, Slay Tracks (1933-1969), “Box Elder,” with the snare sounds coming from a distant shotgun, or a sample from an NES game. “I’ve got a lot of good things coming my way/But I’m afraid to say that you’re not one of them,” Swan sings, floating above the sound in a way Malkmus could have never imagined.
“Grounded,” however, shines in a way that the whole album never quite manages to reach. Sound builds behind the slow-moving guitar riff with retro-sounding synths that hypnotize like a pocket watch swinging back and forth before your eyes. Where the track would logically get big—like, M83 big—Swan keeps it subdued, pushing you further down her dreamy rabbit hole.
On her non-cover records, Swan’s bombastic synth-heavy pop recalls classic Blondie—sometimes veering more towards another European group indebted to Debbie Harry and co., The Sounds. The expansive soundscapes of Hits don’t get that retro-cool vibe or structure, eschewing convention for artistic interpretation, like a Euro Karen O who just pirated her first copy of Reason. Swan skitches and beeps her way through what could have been a straightforward retelling.
In some places, “Shady Lane” for example, the sparse, almost no-wavey production takes all the fun out of lines like “You’ve been casted as an extra in the movie adaptation to the sequel of your life,” putting too much emphasis on the “look-how-weird-I-can-be!” gimmick that the whole album suffers from. When undertaking a project like a full covers album, spots have to be picked. Consistent envelope-pushing eventually leaves no envelope at all; the sly charm of Pavement mostly gets lost in translation.
“It was the way that you smiled that made me know at once that I had to get the fuck out of this town,” Swan mimics on “Box Elder.” Consider that for a second. Stephen Malkmus wrote of an off-putting charm, the very same creeping feeling that washes over during a brief visit to the world of Astrid Swan. It’s like a great vacation spot; fun for a week or so, but if you had to live there you’d scream. Loudly.