Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
"I am not a present to be opened up and parceled out again," our man insists on "Gardenia," track seven on his new album. Ha! That's what you think, pal. From the day nigh two decades ago when the first scratchy sounds of Pavement floated in the ether above Stockton (crown jewel of California's Central Valley, the sprawling breadbasket that neither the North or the South have claimed in California's ongoing "two states" culture war; just providing some historical context that will be useful a few sentences later), the music of Stephen Malkmus has been the gift that keeps on keepin' on.
Did SM not offer the eternal promise of "perfect sound forever"? Was this sly appropriation of a digital age boast for Pavement's low-bandwidth treble-kicks not a prescient example of that "irony" thing everybody talked about in the '90s? Can we then conclude that that by invoking "paralyzed dreams forever" on this album Malkmus foretells some sort of bad moon on the rise?
Hell, I don't know, and I'm the omniscient narrator of this artist bio. But I will point out that much of Real Emotional Trash, his fourth "solo" LP (this one credited with The Jicks, like his second, Pig Lib), is decidedly low-down and heavy. It could hardly be otherwise with monster drummer Janet Weiss now a full-fledged Jick, alongside bassist Joanna Bolme and guitar/keyboardist Mike Clark. Meanwhile, Malkmus the guitar hero is on full display here. "Dragonfly Pie," "Baltimore," and the title track are alchemic combinations of intricate composition and unfettered jam. Whoa, did I actually type the phrase "unfettered jam"? Scratch that. (Did I actually say "scratch that"? It's a good thing I'm anonymous as well as omniscient.)
Malkmus' genius is that he knows exactly when to fetter. These songs may sprawl like the Central Valley (told you), they may spread out like a jet's flame, but when they reach that last tract house they gracefully spread their wings and head for the unclaimed land beyond. Indeed, although Malkmus makes the Pacific Northwest his home, this feels like a "California" album. Check out how "Real Emotional Trash" begins as a modern-day "Tonight's the Night," before evolving into a road trip from the Mexican border to Marin, in the tradition of Pavement's "Unfair." And dig those Allman Bros. leads (really!).
Elsewhere, "We Can't Help You" channels the Band's "The Weight," tapping that same vein of late-night melancholia and early-morning lucidity. "Cold Son" sounds like a cruise down the Ventura Highway. And if another song released this year makes you smile as much as "Gardenia," I have a rare Crust Brothers bootleg with your name on it. While I cannot get with the song's insistence that its singer is not a "present," I can sympathize with one line: "donâ't want to damn you with the faintest praise." That's what it feels like to write about this record, tossing around those historical comparisons, making you read about it when you could be listening to it. So listen, already.
Face The Truth
May 24, 2005
FACE THE TRUTH unveils a new STEPHEN MALKMUS. His exuberance has given way to bliss, and his performances are more disarming and electrifying than ever. The volatile SM who sang "Water and a Seat" as if he were Muhammad Ali extolling his punch and shuffle is missing. On FACE THE TRUTH we hear a beseeching, almost quizzical SM who has - to generalize - returned to his first influences. And he has downplayed his guitar virtuosity behind his singing and arranging.
SM has relaxed. And he refuses to relax. He still delivers to his audience intricate scores, precisely performed. He finds room for the full range of Americana: country to pop, jazz and disco. In fact the fake disco of "Kindling for the Master" owes a lot to SM's 1990's vision of sexuality, framed in pumping groaning funk. He seems as content with a punching-bag beat as he does with the most fragile DIY jam. The search for new voices lead him to sounds in danger of becoming obsolete.
Southwestern Blues, INXS, Simon and Garfunkel, Turkish Psych, are only some of the references for FACE THE TRUTH. There is psycho blues meets Memphis Funk ("It Kills"), there is tasteful rock and roll ("Baby Come On"). It is a cosmopolitan map, wider than the loyalties of perhaps ANY other contemporary artist. Certainly no other indie boy could make a drum machine swing with such silky ease as SM does on "Pencil Rot". None would have thought of pitting Moogs against a power trio in "Malediction". And only Tiny Tim could sing against the grain of these furious arrangements in such a consoling way.
The distorted vocals on "Mama" are a standout. While SM croons, he tempers his attack into a repressed serenity that recalls Morrissey fronting The Fall.
SM has not ended his love affair with country music either - check out "Freeze the Saints". SM sings alone (doubled) in the crying loneliness unique to the sound he pioneered, his words pouring through a gauntlet of throat, tongue, and lips - he sounds a lot like himself.
Even more Pavement-derived is "Post Paint Boy". SM's devotional voice matches the halcyon times of 'Wowee Zowee.' But ten years of repetition has not expelled the tension and SM still exploits the contrast. His argumentative singing is countered by the flowing guitars.
So check out FACE THE TRUTH. Don't resolve the tension - it is a no-brainer.
"The man has an uncanny ability to transliterate the sounds only record collectors can hear â€“ early Thin Lizzy, for instance â€“ into a passionate ache anyone can love."
-- Village Voice
March 18, 2003
"The band became a picture frame surrounding the vision he dreamt," Stephen Malkmus sings on "1% of One", the wall-crawling, mirrored-ceiling epic that anchors Pig Lib, the second-serve ace of a sophomore album from Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks. Could there be a better summation of the cohesively glorious musical unit that produced Pig Lib? Or is one of the most engaging puzzle-makers in music again throwing the legions for a loop? While "1% of One" features a Malkmus guitar solo whose breadth of vision makes an IMAX screen seem downright puny, the visionary dreamer of the song is, as you will hear, a blind Dutch soundman who "knew not what band he mixed/ they sounded a bit like the Zephyr and a bit like the Jicks." Ah yes, the Jicks: Stephen Malkmus on guitar and vocals, Joanna Bolme on bass, Mike Clark on keyboards and guitar, and John Moen, drums. If you thought you knew the Jicks sound based upon 2001's positively plaudit-laden Stephen Malkmus, get ready: Pig Lib is the sound of a band who've found themselves (without using Mapquest), who feel comfortable in their collective skin (sans botox injections), and who know how to stretch out (while not getting tied to the rack). So throw your BORN TO CHOOGLE trucker caps in the air like you really do care, because it's time for Pig Lib.
When the Portland, Oregon-based trio known as Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks delivered their new album Pig Lib to Matador Records' spanking new Manhattan high-rise HQ, it caused perhaps the headiest confab since Kofi Annan and Bill Gates last koffeeklatch. Suddenly, as the late great Fred Neil once wrote, everybody's talkin', wondering when exactly did the cross-cultural exchange rate between the Pacific Northwest and the Big Apple become so conflated? When Powell's Books began placing ads for their website in the New Yorker? When hotheaded Trailblazers power forward Rasheed Wallace, moonlighting as a rap radio jock, dissed Jay-Z on air? When members of Silkworm were seen haggling over a brunch tab at Great Jones CafÃ©? When Leslie West, guesting yet again on the Howard Stern Show, began babbling about "that cabalistic new Jicks jam, 'Witch Mountain Bridge'"?
By the time Pig Lib is released, UCLA Men's basketball head coach Steve Lavin will have either stepped down or been fired. Although Lavin has had a stretch of improbable NCAA tournament runs over the past five years, there's no denying that this year's Bruins suck. To be fair, it's nigh near impossible for any UCLA basketball coach to live up to the legacy of John Wooden a.k.a. "The Wizard Of Westwood", a man roundly acknowledged as the greatest college basketball coach of all time. Stephen Malkmus, born in Santa Monica, California on May 30, 1966, attended one of Wooden's basketball camps as a youngster. Which is perhaps why, while Lavin is stepping down, Malkmus & The Jicks are stepping it up.
In early autumn 2002, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks dipped beneath the equator to play a tent gig in Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina, where they debuted a new, lyrically ultra-acerbic ("you to me is like carbon dioxide/ you know I won't be your frozen rose") yet swinging and sublime (thank to deft stickwork from drummer John Moen) number called "Animal Midnight." Immediately, Malk-centric message boards began swirling with rumors about the song: that novelist Chuck "Choke" Palahniuk tried to buy the title "Animal Midnight" for one month's worth of writer's residuals from the Fight Club DVD, but Malkmus wasn't selling; that the line "shit for a brain" was originally "Schiffer brains" but David Copperfield threw a fit; that the smoking guitar solo is based around chord intervals written acrostically on a postcard to Malkmus from Tony McPhee, leader of blues legends The Groundhogs. Now that "Animal Midnight" appears fully fleshed on Pig Lib, we take these grooves to be self-evident.
2002 saw the release of indie rock's ultimate capstone, the ten-year anniversary double disc edition of Pavement's beloved debut album Slanted & Enchanted. Dubbed Luxe & Reduxe, the release came complete with bulging booklet, beaucoup bonus cuts and more wistful memories than an aging fan could douse with a can of heckler spray. The near-confluence of Slanted's redux and the release of Pig Lib brings into luminous focus the lush grove that is the creative home of singer/guitarist Stephen Malkmus. Give a listen to Slanted's don't-blame-me classic "Zurich Is Stained." Then spin "Ramp Of Death" off Pig Lib. Both tunes are deceptively low-key, with memorable, melancholic melodies not entirely dissimilar. This is, perhaps, because Malkmus is now comfortable enough to look back while moving forward. Pig Lib is a fresh crest on a substantial continuum where the only constant is change.
When Pavement folded, Stephen Malkmus took a sabbatical in Hawaii. There, he trawled a trail of poi and pakalolo until he regained his inner glow. It showed on 2001's Stephen Malkmus, and not just in the tanned, rested and ready cover portrait. The album featured Malkmus's most fully-formed forays into narrative songwriting (the Pacific Northwest romance of "Jenny And The Ess-Dog" and the pirate's progress charted by "The Hook"). Suddenly, the acknowledged master of the intriguing non sequitur had grown into an engaging storyteller without ever appearing on VH-1. Now Malkmus further hones his ability to cast a short story into song with Pig Lib's "Craw Song." A tasty bit of who's-zooming-who multi-partner romantic intrigue (consider poor Leroy, who "couldn't commit to the mental jujitsu of switching his hitting from ladies to men"), "Craw Song" comes across like a Whit Stillman sampler full of sexual chocolate. Just in time to soundtrack a spring fling, all up in your craw.
"There's egression in the air this morning." So begins "Vanessa From Queens," the snappy poprocker that's track four on Pig Lib. Or perhaps it's "aggression in the air"? Stephen Malkmus, noted Scrabble enthusiast, is a man not known to shy away from lyrical wordplay. Preceding album Stephen Malkmus featured a "carry on"/"carrion" homophone on the song "Church On White." The most infamous instance of Malkmusian wordplay (and the subject of extensive media conjecture) appeared on "Cut Your Hair" from Pavement's sophomore album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain; was Malkmus therein chanting "career" or "Korea"? It can now be divulged that handsome Stephen was actually shouting out pro hockey pal/Anaheim Ducks standout Paul Kariya. Probably.
Pig Lib ends with a song simply titled "Us." "Take our time with what we find and feel it," Malkmus sings, "don't you know there's someplace else that we can go." It makes great sense that the new direction in question is one that is being forged in the first person plural, for to listen to Pig Lib is to dig on the essential contributions of bassist Joanna Bolme and drummer John Moen. Take Bolme's mesmeric, everchanging fuzz bass line on "1% of One" and Moen's locked-on jet propulsion beats on the darker-than-New Wave "Dark Wave," just two instances of Pig Lib as a proving ground for greatness. "I wish we could get our act together/ make some sense of present tense alright," Stephen sings on "Us." On Pig Lib, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks do both these things and more.
The critics speak:
"The great guitar romantic of his era, a poet, a con man, a slave to love, a badly drawn boy, a flannel man-cub troubadour whose smartass lyrics barely veil the cosmic emotional climaxes of his voice and guitar." Rolling Stone
"Malkmus deploys six-string fireworks as a Greek chorus, like a hybrid of Jerry Garcia, Thurston Moore, Kevin Shields, and Tom Verlaine." Revolver
"The most notable development is Malkmus's stepping forward as a shit-hot guitar player, his ample pop charms seem as much a revelation as a reintroduction to an old friend." Time Out
"An album that swaggers with a confidence and verve that used to be verboten in the field in which he was once the standard bearer, and the Jicks are a damn sight tighter and more exhilarating than any Pavement show I ever saw."
"The most unapologetically exhilarating record with which his name's been associated since Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain." Mojo
"Malkmus has emerged as nothing less than the coolest cucumber since Bob Dylan." LA Weekly
"Bold, brainy, and brilliant rock." Us Weekly
"A playfully brilliant generational icon." W
"An album of brilliant songs." Billboard
"The first rock 'n' roll classic of the 21st century." Shout
"A guided tour of a vivid inner life." New York Times
"Instantly catchy." Time
"A revelation." Time Out
"Something for everyone." People