By Tom Lynch
As difficult as it is to believe Pavement’s that last record, “Terror Twilight,” came out nearly a decade a ago, it’s equally surprising to consider that front man Stephen Malkmus has put out four albums since, none with quite the impact of his previous band’s work. Don’t be mistaken, the reaction to Malkmus’ “solo” work has been almost universally positive since the release of his self-titled debut in 2000, but since then, the enigmatic songwriter has progressively drifted further and further from his famous Pavement sound and closer to a prog-rock, seventies-guitar-marathon revival.
While the debut felt like a leftover broth of Pavement material (as good as that broth tastes), the follow-up, “Pig Lib,” began Malkmus’ guitar freak-out phase, with longer songs, more complex structures and signatures and even less direct lyrical content, which is saying a lot given Malkmus’ knack for scripting songs full of cool-sounding but meaningless non sequiturs. “Face the Truth” came next, his most experimental album, carefully and oddly crafted mostly alone in his Portland basement, and the general peculiarity of it showed what Pavement would’ve sounded like if the other dudes weren’t in the band.
Earlier this month, Malkmus and his backing band, The Jicks, released “Real Emotional Trash” (Matador), the humorously titled fourth episode of the post-Pavement Malkmus series. More of a full-band record than any of his previous efforts, “Trash” begins with the five-minute-plus “Dragonfly Pie” and doesn’t look back. Last year, indie-rock nerds lost their minds when it was announced Sleater-Kinney/Quasi drummer Janet Weiss had joined the band and was going to play on the record, and her contributions to the album’s overall feel elevates it well above a mere platform for Malkmus to show off his guitar chops. That full-band vibe “Real Emotional Trash” generates makes it Malkmus’ strongest effort since his solo debut. Amongst the sprawling guitar excursions, nearly hidden, he also offers some of the prettiest melodies he’s written—the shorter songs, more pop-oriented, are still the most memorable, like “Cold Son” or “Gardenia”—and “Out of Reaches,” which mixes both the pop and the prog, is one of the best songs he’s written since Pavement’s demise.
“I don’t feel there’s usually very much respect for what we’re doing,” Malkmus admits. “I feel, not like it’s disrespect, but it’s taken for granted sort of, not that that’s so bad. But it’s up to us what we want to do, so I don’t feel much pressure really. We’re all pretty confident about what we’re doing. Not to say it’s the greatest thing, but it’s worthy of existing compared to everything else out there. I mean, why not? The bar is not so high.”
Despite the praise and recognition continually bestowed upon Pavement and its place in America’s rock ‘n’ roll history, Malkmus sees this project as an underdog of sorts. “In a way,” he says. “It might not seem like that to some band that hasn’t made CDs yet, but, you know, we just pretend we’re this dog that’s been kicked around.”
Malkmus says that making this record, with the full band, was much more natural than his process with “Face the Truth,” holed up in his basement by himself. “It doesn’t really exist if it’s just by yourself,” he says. “Then it’s just in your own head, your own ego. It’s a much more human kind of sharing [making music with the band], and that’s what it really is all about in the end, for music—sharing with the audience, sharing with each other. For me, at least. My chance to socialize is really playing music, and that’s the band, there you have it. You can’t socialize by yourself. I spend enough time by myself already.”
And what’s it like for him with Weiss behind the kit? “Man, wouldn’t you like to know?” he laughs. “She’s great. What can I say? For rock ‘n’ roll, she’s dedicated—that doesn’t do her justice. You don’t have to worry at all. That’s nice, you know? It’s what you want—like, on your basketball team, you want your guy to produce twenty-ten every game. Twenty points and ten rebounds. And some steals. And, she makes her free throws.”
The change of style in his songwriting is apparent on any post-Pavement Malkmus song after only a few measures, and he acknowledges the shift in course, but won’t say the transformation is drastic. “Not that much,” he says when asked how he thinks he’s changed as a songwriter. “There’s a similar spirit, but some things have gotten excised out of the canon, as far as certain kinds of really simple songs. There’s a couple examples still, but not as evident, no two-chord [songs] like with Pavement. I probably just did those two chords already. I like repetitive, minimal things, but I wouldn’t think of doing it anymore. It’s kind of the curse of being overqualified for playing rock ‘n’ roll or something. I sometimes feel like a member of Yes when the Sex Pistols came out. I couldn’t possibly think of playing something that genius—I would just never think of playing something so remedial.”
Malkmus and his wife just had their second daughter, and family life has changed the 41-year-old. “You have to plan things out more,” he says. “Which is not my nature.”
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks play March 21 at the Vic Theatre, 3145 North Sheffield, (773)618-8439, at 8pm.