Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Pseudo-Intellectual Posturing?

Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks - Real Emotional Trash (Domino, 2008)

I’ve struggled a little with Stephen Malkmus’ solo material. This may say more about me than him, in that he has gradually abandoned many of the qualities I admired most about Pavement – their ramshackle, twitchy, scatty sound, the emphasis on verbose, quirky lyrics and their unusual but strangely infectious melodies. His first album had some delightful moments, but mostly sounded like a diluted version of an established formula, following which he took a couple of peculiar left-turns with classic rock on ‘Pig Lib’ and quirky folk on ‘Face The Truth’. With a new version of The Jicks in tow (featuring a dependably thunderous Janet Weiss on drums), Malkmus now returns to the characteristics that dominated ‘Pig Lib’. There are long meandering solos, syncopated rhythms, numerous time signature changes, and some squalling classic rock jamming.

Musical extrapolation is not something I generally have a problem with – indeed, as a jazz enthuasiast, I often find extemporising thrilling and inspiring. The problem here though, is that it often serves to obfuscate Malkmus’ talents as a writer. I come away from most of the tracks here unable to recall vocal lines or lyrics (many of which could be memorable in more concise contexts). More often than not, the long guitar solos seem to have very little to say – and offer little emotional expression. I feel much the same way about the improvising here as I do about Neil Young’s playing in live performance. Many love his technically limited attacks on two or three notes of his guitar, but I find they get tiresome and repetitive very quickly, and undermine the quality of his melodies. Unfortunately, in the case of ‘Real Emotional Trash’, I wonder whether the quality of the compositions can even withstand the kind of treatment metered out here.

The presence of Weiss is crucial – she turns this into Malkmus’ most aggressive and assertive solo album to date. The drumming is driving and exploratory, even on songs taken at relatively sedate tempos. It’s far more interesting than the guitar noodling that all too frequently threatens to smother it. She also provides striking dynamic contrasts, particularly on the bizarre ‘Hopscotch Willie’ and the lengthy title track, which most other rock drummers would not have the awareness or skill to execute. ‘Hopscotch Willie’ is typical of the ponderous demeanour of the album as a whole though – it veers between coruscating and tepid passages, without really ever fulfilling its undoubted potential.

‘Cold Son’ has one of Malkmus’ deceptively simple choruses that wouldn’t sound out of place on ‘Wowee Zowee’, but it’s in search of a decent melody for the rest of the song. Also, whilst ‘Wowee Zowee’-era Pavement always sounded perilously on the verge of internal combustion – the Jicks sound like a band merely content to flex their musical muscles in lieu of any real intensity. Pavement had a unique sound that made them brilliantly contemporary, but ‘Real Emotional Trash’ frequently sounds tied to rather tired 1970s influences (hear the plodding piano on the first section of the title track for example). Ultimately, this sounds like music that was really fun to make, but has resulted in something that’s rather frustrating for the listener. The title track has a really rather beautiful coda that follows several minutes of directionless posturing. So much more could have been made from it!

On the closing ‘Wicked Wanda’, Malmus advises of the need to ‘break out of your core category’, and this appears to be what he is attempting to achieve for himself. I admire Malkmus for veering away from his established template and experimenting with different ideas, but I just can’t see ‘Real Emotional Trash’ becoming an album to which I might ever have an ardent desire to return. I’d rather nostalgically delve back to ‘Stereo’, ‘Shady Lane’, ‘We Dance’, ‘Silent Kid’, ‘Here’ or even ‘Carrot Rope’, and that poses something of a problem.

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