Review: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks’ “Real Emotional Trash”

Mar 7, 2008 11:51am

Former Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus is one of the only performers I can think of whose solo records are of equal quality as those of his former band.  Most people go solo and lack the power that they once had.  (Every now and then, you find someone who gets better after going solo.  Bjork’s records have more resonance than her records with the Sugarcubes, but that’s an isolated case.)  In Malkmus’ case, it all seems to run in a straight line, from 1992′s classic “Slanted and Enchanted” all the way to this album, “Real Emotional Trash,” his fourth post-Pavement record.  Sure, there are differences.  Pavement’s songs were usually quick little crunching power-nuggets (think of the 18 tracks packed onto “Wowee Zowee”) whereas the Malkmus records tend to jam out with more prog-y and jam-rock touches.  But it all remains the same.  He is a cult hero now for the same reasons he always was.  He’s the perfect storm.  He’s got a lot of winning qualities.  Sometimes he’s got a similarly wacky stream-of-thought lyrical method as Beck, sometimes he comes off as a similarly garbled (but much, much happier) cousin to Kurt Cobain and he’s always got the same, lanky, effortless cool of Thurston Moore.  The coolest new development in Malkmus’ backup band, the Jicks, is the new arrival of former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, who replaces John Moen, who has now been drafted by the Decemberists.  Weiss makes her presence known right from the get-go. Her drums are right at the center of the opening track “Dragonfly Pie,” attacking with the kind of force that made her former band’s full-throttle swan song, “The Woods” such a hard-hitting indie-rock classic. If you aren’t prepared, Malkmus’ songs can seem rather dizzying (especially on this record) but give it a few listens and your ears will fall into line.  There’s also a pseudo-psychedelic, long winded vibe.  (The album’s title track is over ten minutes long.  Has Malkmus been listening to old Traffic records?)  When “Hopscotch Willie” jams out, it gets a crusty Santana-via-Allman Brothers vibe.  Unlike all the groups mentioned above, though, you get the sense that Malkmus has never taken himself too seriously, especially when he is repeating the word “hopscotch” over and over again.  There’s an underlying, built-in, winking sarcasm to his tone which may make this record bearable for those people who don’t normally like such extended jams.  The whole album is full of ornate guitar-work.  However, some tracks are flashier than others.  After “Dragonfly Pie” and “Hopscotch Willie,” “Cold Son” seems much more straight-forward.
“Out of Reaches” is a mid-tempo gem so catchy that by the second chorus, you’ll probably be singing along to Malkmus’ “Out! Out! Out! Out of Reaches!” This is a potential single that Adult Alternative radio would be all over. When it ends with him singing, “I know the tide will turn” over and over again, though it is cryptic, you believe in his sense of optimism.  “Baltimore” is another highlight.  The riffage gives it a sense of drama, while distant background vocals give it an angelic feel.  When it changes tempo at just before the 3-minute mark, you wish you had a lighter to raise. At 2:53, “Gardenia” reminds us what a smart craftsman Malkmus is in a shorter form.  With its sing-song-y “ba-ba-ba” background vocals provided by Weiss and bassist Joanna Bolme, along with its semi-comical shout-outs to Richard Avedon, it is the most digestible track here.  By Malkmus’ standards, this is finger-snapping pop candy, and because it is jam-packed with wit, it becomes all the sweeter. “Elmo Delmo” returns us to a more experimental setting, but this seems to be one of the band’s specialties.  It’s hard to think of another band from today who can rock out so righteously.  Only Wilco’s recent work comes to mind.  In the middle of the track when keyboardist Mike Clark throws in a swirling keyboard pattern, you can almost imagine a rainbow of bright, whirling colors. Like “Gardenia,” “We Can Help You” is another quick number assisted by female la-la-la-style background vocals.  There’s a great friendliness to such touches.  Amid a record full of complexity, such sudden simplicity is comforting and familiar.  Perhaps this kind of balance is Malkmus’ secret formula.  When something similar happens on the longer closer, “Wicked Wanda,” you are completely a believer that Malkmus and his band are among the finest indie-rock has to offer.  Like all the Pavement records and the Malkmus records before it, “Real Emotional Trash” is a no-holds-barred classic.  No matter how complex the compositions are, Malkmus and his band just make it look so effortless.  If you are down with the easy-going mood of the record, they knock most of their peers clean out of the water.  Malkmus is one of the most unsung, skilled guitarists around on top of everything else.  After years in the game, it is evident that Stephen Malkmus still can rock quite substantially.  Quite simply, even at their silliest, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks flat-out rule!

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