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Softening With Age

Stephen Malkmus Opens The Gate to His Inner Hippie

Jess Harvell

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 3/19/2008

The stealth battle for Stephen Malkmus' soul began sometime after Jenny ditched the Ess-Dog and tossed out those awful toe rings. Deep within the lanky, laconic Jicks frontman's subconscious, the will to noodle away into infinity grappled quietly with the will to impersonate John Ashbery. The warning signs were apparent as far back as Pavement's 1995's loosey-goosey Wowee Zowee (see: "Fight This Generation") and 1997's Brighten the Corners (see: "Fin"), even if it went unnoticed. But with Malkmus' new Real Emotional Trash, the classy jams are winning out.

After Pavement's 1999 swan song, Terror Twilight (see: "The Hexx"), Malkmus was able to hold the masturbatory beast-urge at bay long enough to crank out a self-titled, Kool-Aid-flavored solo album. But when 2003's progged-to-the-hilt Pig Lib dropped, the shit was on: With the windingly elegant spirals of "Witch Mountain Bridge," multiclimax Ren-faire powwow "1% of One," and the hellishly warped "Sheets," Malkmus' dormant jam gene reared its ugly, longhaired head.

Two years later, the only jam Face the Truth had to offer was the darkly circular, sitar-saturated storm cloud "No More Shoes." A sneaky maneuver? You bet, because Real Emotional Trash is jam central, with singer/songwriter/guitarist Malkmus, bassist Joanna Bolme, keyboardist/guitarist Mike Clark, and new draft-pick drummer Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi) favoring fiery, multipart explorations and navel-gazing bouts of compositional constipation over concise verse-chorus-verse structure.

Furthermore, Malkmus' level of vocal engagement reaches its lowest ebb yet. Often, he sounds as though he's sleepwalking through the emotional motions here, pacing cadences in time with central melodic motifs, allowing them to hoist him aloft like a crowd surfer until the inevitable Jam Moment arrives. Politely turbulent yet neatly hemmed, vaguely psychedelic yet immaculately manicured, the patented Jicks jam is aural comfort food, a distant, buttoned-down cousin of those unhinged late-20th-century instrumental odysseys for which punk and alternative bands--and Pavement--had little use.

Sometimes--if you sincerely heart polite jams--most of the above doesn't much matter. On the whimsical, almost-bombastic opener, "Dragonfly Pie" a blazing, Jimi Hendrix-lite tableau and ludicrous, tangled conceits spur Malkmus to emote, pouring strangled, overachieving passion into stoner gibberish--such as "Dragon-fly wants a piece of piiiiiiie/ But he is so struuuuuuuuuuuung out/ Shake me off the knife because I want to go home"--while the Jicks thread out crispy distorted riff ropes interspersed with dainty keyboard pokes. The outro is the money shot, when the tune's barely restrained facade finally gives way to a wah-wah pedaling bug-out. More deliberate is criminological character-sketch giggle "Hopscotch Willie," titled in part for its hot potato-esque melodic structure. Phased, kazoolike licks, strummy rhythm guitars, iridescent keyboard arpeggio sprinkles, and tamped-down drum play propel this police-procedural fable of a jailed protagonist--who swears up and down that he's not a crook, he just looks like one--into a manic whiz-bang wank-fest that only slackens for a Malkmus/Weiss-chanted double-dutch chorus before moving along to the bloody denouement.

The epic title track--about a Scott Peterson doppelgänger or a married couple's out-of-control vacation shenanigans; it's hard to say--shifts incrementally from expository languor to Donald Duck-y feedback blats and full-on, Creedence Clearwater Revival-ish interstellar mayhem. The arbitrarily titled "Baltimore" flies a proud prog flag through stained-glass choir "oooos," preachy declarations, and some heavy-duty ax shredding.

While those songs are charming enough to forestall disappointment, gauzy adulterer's anthem "Out of Reaches" isn't so invulnerable. Its dazed grooves ooze alluring, B-side calm, while Malkmus' disinterested, bloodless lyricism is galling: "I can see you hiding out/ Shrinking like the daisy you were born to be/ You did your thing and now you desert/ The voltage was the best thing that I ever knew." "Elmo Delmo" could be a Pig Lib holdover--do those opening chords echo 2005's "Loud Cloud Crowd"?--and wastes tough-to-transcribe, highfalutin' stanzas on less-than-brilliant hooks. Rollicking nonjam "We Can't Help You," so refreshing and full of promise as a 2007 live standard, is ruined here by a nauseating, cathedral-procession admixture of splashing pianos, organ pomp, and patchwork nonsentiments phoned in with the sort of indifference you expect from Malkmus hero Michael Stipe these days.

Interestingly, Trash's more compact tunes also double as the album's most knowing, pointed social commentaries. Malkmus wouldn't be Malkmus without his longstanding-if-waning interest in the egalitarian/trustafarian elite's pratfalls, a theme catchy gouges "Cold Son" and "Gardenia" eagerly seize upon. The sluggishly complicated "Son" is written from the perspective of a Bachelor/Joe Millionaire Adonis type who is gorging himself on studio-budget luxury and glamorous, sacrificial Persephones. "To my wheel-well you're getting close, so say adios/ The conjecture is reject the rose," Malkmus counsels against "Son"'s dinky key zone-out drone, distorted vocal-sample backdrop, and later quips, "Who was it who said `The world is my oyster?'/ I feel like a nympho trapped in a cloister." Jaunty and vaguely Thin Lizzy, "Gardenia" is as perkily pinched and steam iron-pressed as the fictional Richard Avedon-approved debutante at whom it pokes nasty fun. "I kinda like the way you dot your `J's'/ With giant circles of naiveté," Malkmus sneers, thoroughly in his arrogant element, later cracking, "You are a gardenia/ Pressed in the campaign journal in the rucksack of an Afrikaner/ Candidate for mild reform."

This is the Malkmus longtime fans miss: the snooty voice of an entitled generation laying erudite smack-downs within peer boundaries, showing off those almost-forgotten indie-pop songwriting skills, sharpening his teeth into fangs. Since becoming a father and a husband earlier this decade that hard-eyed edge has been sorely missed in his music, replaced by the kind of funny-uncle-stoned-off-of-his-gourd babbling that's got a shorter shelf life than fake, burnt-out punk songs about evil major labels. Here's hoping that the Ess-Dog never loses sight of his innate, critical strengths. Otherwise, in a couple decades the average Jicks album will clock in at 70 turgid minutes and feature as much unessential verbiage as your average guest-free Chemical Brothers single does.

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