Real Emotional Trash – Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
For a while there, s.m. and spiral stairs were everyone's darlings, and for all the right reasons. As Pavement, they sloughed off impossibly loose, irresistible noise-blister-jangle-pop shaded in just enough lo-fi obscurity to pique even the dullest of interests. To these ears, they could do no wrong. From the cryptic transmissions of Slanted & Enchanted, to the near-perfection of Crooked Rain Crooked Rain to the fabulously unwieldy fustercluck of Wowee Zowee they did what every band should do -which is to say they made music that only they could make. Then somewhere around Brighten the Corners, the wheels fell off. Things got too smooth, too on-kilter, too I-coulda-done-that. The band settled into a lope it couldn’t spur its way out of, and Stephen Malkmus’ staggering swagger devolved into destination-less, self-indulgent strollinto wankery. That wankery became an albatross for s.m. which has been swinging from his neck for too many years now. With Real Emotional Trash he has finally cut the lanyard.
After too much walking the straight line, s.m. has got his slimp back (that's a slinky limp, for the record). Now, the guitars have a little extra crackle. The jams (that's rightjams) have a little extra kick-and-sway, and the indulgent prog-rockery has just the right balance of homage and irony (just listen to the swapped guitar and keyboard lines in the middle of "Baltimore": from straight schlock it bursts back into high-kickin', wind-millin' proper-rock quick enough to chase the joke down with a spoonful of slow-winking mustachioed goodness). To some — especially for those Pavement fans still waiting for a proper follow-up to Crooked Rain all these years later — this will sound like the same self-indulgence that made Wowee Zowee an indecipherable mess to their ears. But for most of us, Malkmus is at his best when he’s at his most self-indulgent, when he forefronts his idiosyncrasy, when he’s fighting to keep oddities like Serpentine Pad and "Brinx Job" on the record. This effort is far more monochromatic than Wowee Zowee, but while it may feel like a full album for "Half a Canyon" fans, the scattered and indulgent Malkmus still helms this record. He just indulges fewer sides of himself, and for the first time he’s got a killer band behind him.
Sometime during the one-two opening gambit of "Dragonfly Pie" and "Hopscotch Willie" you realize the Jicks are now full-fledged ass-kickers. The difference is drummer Janet Weiss, who jumped aboard after the Sleater-Kinney ship sank. She plugs along Sabbathly when required, shoves a jam along with rumbles and rolls when she needs to, and still slaps out a little of the stumbling, amateurish off-kilterdom that was a Pavement trademark from the Gary Young Days. Malkmus has never had a band that could shift gears the way the Jicks do on the ten-minute title track. It opens like any of the several discardable lopers on Brighten the Corners, but halfway through it dissolves into one grim drone before Weiss puts the hammer down and pounds into high gear, driving into a completely different space. Raygun guitars blast over an insistent pulse with some perfectly slack-ass Allman guitar-twinning over the piano, and it’s Malkmus Mach II in a way that even David St. Hubbins could dig. This in turn tapers into a perfunctory outro that returns to the original theme as if to say, "We put the pro in progressive rock bitches." While Malkmus’ most recent record, Face the Truth, served as some reminder that Malkmus could still tip over the apple cart and kick the cores around, his personal dominance of the record (see that Jickless billing?) kept the jammier songs from reaching full potential the way these do. Now, I’m salivating to see what these Jicks can do live with something like "No More Shoes" or "Baby C’mon."
Lyrically, Malkmus is as provocatively evasive as ever ("Shake me off the knife because I want to go home"). He also maintains his penchant for punning sounds, using emphasis to turn "Abstract citizen" into "Abstract city sun" in back-to-back lines. But my favorite Malkmus trick is the over-elaborated line. He will stretch a line past any number of obvious end-points. For example, follow this non sequitur string of elaborations to its illogical end: "You are a gardenia pressed in the campaign journal in the rucksack of an Afrikaaner candidate for mild reform." Of course, all this wordplay rarely adds up to much. Malkmus is after all more fascinated with the sound of the words than the words themselves, but as long as you're not relying on him for more trenchant bits of wisdom than "Are you just a present waiting to be opened up and parceled out again?" and are willing to settle for, "He was panting like a pit bull minus the mean," it's all good.
Still though, Malkmus does his best work on this record when he shuts his yap and rips. This is, above all, a guitar record. As a guitarist, he's always been prone to tangents, and this record gives him space to pursue those tangents. He's got that whole 70s prog-rock wizard schtick down, and he delivers on nearly track here. Add it all up and you've got Malkmus' best work in years. I'm still not sure what to make the album's last three tracks (especially the closer "Wicked Wanda" which seemingly lifts its vocal melody of Liz Phair's "Flower"), but considering the way the remainder of the record has grown on me I'm willing to bet that these will do the same. It's a far-from-perfect effort, but it's the best s.m. has given us since Wowee Zowee and with Weiss in the fold we can hope it’s just a first step. That’s more than enough for me.