It was going to be called "Swedish Reggae" - an attempt by its creator "to mix the precision of Saab, Stefan Edberg and Bergman with the laid back yet heavy beats of deepest Trench town" - but arrives instead with the more authoritative moniker "Stephen Malkmus" ("the solo debut from the Pavement mainman you only thought you knew"), as though attempting to convince you that you really haven't bought the new Pavement album, honestly.
As if. For ten years Malkmus was the epicentre of the gloriously shambolic Pavement, a band who began by torching the alternative/indie/college rock/call it what you want scene with their inimitable (many have tried, including a certain popular British quartet) chaotic music. Somewhere along the way - I'd suggest the uncharacteristically overweight triple-sided "Wowee Zowee" of 1995 - the spark and intuition that made delightfully untogether albums like "Crooked Rain Crooked Rain" somehow shimmer in a haze of Steely Dan sophistication fled, and they were never the same. Pavement the rock band slid sideways into a woodpile of comfortable, quirky, misshapen country rock, officially disintegrating following a London concert at which Malkmus symbolically attached a pair of handcuffs to his microphone stand.
So "Stephen Malkmus" isn't the sixth Pavement album, even though the chances of anybody buying it who isn't at least blessed with a glancing acquaintance with its non-predecessors are surely remote. In place of the good-natured erraticism of the remainder of Pavement there's a few low-profile friends helping out (members of Maroons and Calamity Jane) and much overdubbing. And for songs we have wild-eyed and wonderful tales of being kidnapped by Turkish pirates as a teenager ("The Hook"), sweet stories of slacker seduction over "Brothers In Arms" ("Jenny & The Ess-Dog") and generally the kind of grinning quirkiness that hasn't been heard on a Pavement album for years, with a side-order of the stickiest bubblegum pop tangled up in the expected dishevelled musical backgrounds . It's fun, but also far from the throwaway instant gratification that might suggest. The Pavement fan in you will probably enjoy it so much you won't even notice the absence of those that are gone.
STEPHEN MALKMUS Jenny & The Ess-Dog (Domino)
What can I say? The former Pavement frontman extracts a second single from his eponymous debut album, and it's 165 seconds of near-perfect social observation, the unpicking of a cross-generational relationship involving nights in with "Brothers In Arms", an ancient Volvo, a dog called Trey, a Sixties cover band and toe-rings. "Jenny & The Ess-Dog" is far too clever and densely-packed for the charts and its entire target audience has probably already bought the album, although a selection of live cover versions spread across the CD and 7" formats (none included on this promo copy, unfortunately) might well tempt those with too much time and money to nullify. It's doomed to glorious failure as a single, destined to bubble up only in the end-of-year critics lists as an example of one of the best ways 2001 found to fill three minutes. Now, how long before Domino release "The Hook" as a single?
STEPHEN MALKMUS Face The Truth (Domino)
Stephen Malkmus third solo platter is a tricksy, knotty, intricate album, full of amiable, rambling shaggy-dog songs. But really, what else were you expecting? Since Pavements earliest fuzzy warbles hes never actually offered cheap, fast thrills, and Face The Truth certainly wants you to work for your entertainment.
Pencil Rot begins proceedings with squidgy synths, cavalry drums and lyrical perversions, all strongly suggestive of Beck in Midnite Vultures garb. A mild diversion atop the arcane college rock hes been fashioning for over a decade, but its still flashing, fizzy fun even if it doesnt brand itself into your brain. The lines Im here to sing a song/A song about privilege/The spikes you put on your feet when you were crawling and dancing/To the top of the human shitpile mysteriously excised from the lyric sheet even tip a knowing wink to his own trust fund slacker status. Freeze The Saints shines through the murky complexity with a beam of concentrated loveliness, from its lapping, tumbling piano intro to its gentle, slightly hamfisted country rock. Done is good, he drawls, But done well is so much fucking better, as this song clearly proves. The eight minute No More Shoes is part song, part framework for a guitar solo of near elephantine gestation, a rockist manoeuvre that recalls the Groundhogs influence that pervaded his last outing, the perhaps intentionally ironically titled Pig Lib. As much as anything on Face The Truth sounds like a single, Mama wears that hat. More consciously streamlined and organised than the rest of the album, proving that memorable lyrics and a hummable tune arent necessarily bad things per se, although the ever-cantankerous Malkmus retitles it Shrimp Eye View on the lyric sheet.
Face The Truth is unlikely to nestle snugly into as many listeners all-time favourite albums lists as the first couple of Pavement albums have, but it demonstrates Malkmus hasnt entirely forsaken his gift for quirky, brow-furrowing tunes and oblique, intriguing lyrics, and for the moment thats consolation enough.
STEPHEN MALKMUS AND THE JICKS / GIRLS / SPECTRALS / GARDENS & VILLA The Ritz, Manchester 10 November 2011
Overstuffed like an NME package tour, tonight is an evening of not-so-different interpretations of the modern indie experience, whatever that is. Santa Barbarians Gardens & Villa reclaim some breathy 80s synth sounds for their keyboard-heavy music, and also deploy what look like wooden flutes, which their leader carries slung across his back like they’re arrows or sump’n.
Spectrals seem to be of Northern English extraction (from Leeds, I later learn) and, save for the fact that their songs are somewhat shorter and more brutal than Gardens & Villa’s, they make absolutely no impact on me whatsoever. Oh well.
Girls shake up the template a little by festooning their microphone stands with bouquets, several of which are flung into the crowd as they leave the stage (the bouquets, not the microphone stands). They seem to have a sizeable fanbase in tonight, and differentiate themselves from the indie masses via a trio of soulful female backing vocalists. They’re pleasant enough, but many (too many) of their songs sound like affectionate pastiches (of soul, of 60s pop, of heavy metal, of glam).
Malkmus and his Jicks are in another league entirely, of course. From opener “Senator” (chorus of the year, surely) they attack his gnarly, meandering songs with punkish fervour. There are many delights from fine new album “Mirror Traffic” (including “Long Hard Book”, “Asking Price” and the perfect pop of “Stick Figures In Love”). Of the older material “Jenny And The Ess-Dog” is predictably delightful and distended closer “Real Emotional Trash” twists and turns like Roxy Music circa “For Your Pleasure”.
The last time Mr Malkmus and I were in the same room together it was on the occasion of one of Pavement’s reunion gigs at Brixton Academy last year. I had to leave early due to repeatedly fainting at the astonishing awesomeness of the 2011 model Pavement, and tonight I have to leave before the end again due to the incompatibility of Northern Rail’s timetables and the crazy notion of the headliners not going on stage until 22:25.
STEPHEN MALKMUS AND THE JICKS Mirror Traffic (Domino)
Formerly and latterly the frontman of Pavement, Stephen Malkmus’ solo(-ish) albums can be imposing affairs, with their gnarly, Groundhogs-esque jamming and arch, inscrutable wordplay. “Mirror Traffic”, perhaps due to Beck’s benign production presence, leavens these usual ingredients with sufficient shiny popcraft to render it as interesting as anything he’s recorded outside the confines of his other band.
The jangly popsicle attack of “Tigers” is an enjoyable enough opener, yet it pales against the likes of “Senator”, with its sliding-down-a-glacier catalogue of riffs and the chorus of last year (“I know what the senator wants/What the senator wants is a blow job”). Other quotable lines that surface from Malkmus’ endlessly shuffled lyrical Scrabble bag include “Too busy putzing round the internet/Revel in the disconnect” and “There’s a long hard book that needs reading”. “Fall Away” is typical of the album, an exquisitely crafted minor masterpiece, but the glorious sugar rush of melodic overload that is “Stick Figures In Love” takes the biscuit and the cake here. Maybe the likes of “Brain Gallop”, “Share The Red” and “Gorgeous Georgie” veer towards the labyrinthine, each being on the far side of five minutes, but rarely oppressively so.
Domino present this not-overly-long album spread over three sides of fine-sounding vinyl (the fourth carries an etching), packaged with a code to access your choice of MP3 or WAV download.