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Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks:: Real Emotional Trash (Album Review)

I haven’t even listened to ten minutes yet* of the newest release from Stephen Malkmus, and I can make this bold assessment: it’s unfair. It’s not fair how biased I am toward anything Stevie (that’s how he signed his name on my copy of his debut); it’s not fair how much talent this man reeks; it’s unfair how effortlessly cool his slacker vocals and bluesy guitar licks are. If all in love is fair, than Stephen Malkmus is the poster boy for musical love a, er, unfairs.

After all, his pre-solo get-up, a Stockton rock band named Pavement, was always the outfit du jour of tastemakers. For the better part of that watershed decade, the Nineties, they were the not-so-secret little band that was always better than whatever band everyone was currently in love with. But unlike a sordid Plan B, Pavement were the real deal. More sardonic, off-kilter, musically daring, and engaging than your main squeeze could purport to be. Yet! They never achieved the main street status of R.E.M., Nirvana, Green Day and hordes of others. Pavement rode in the sidecar, but somehow managed to steer, swerve and crash the damn thing. And their five albums prove what an awesome ride it was.

Back to Mr. Malkmus, and his esteemed solo career. Real Emotional Trash is his fourth release, in a prolific post-Pavement run. Natch, the forty-something indie statesman sounds like he’s having more fun continuing to rock than raising cute kids in Portland. Songs go on for as long as they damn well please. Guitar and keyboard riffs are as sinewy as anything by a brother Allman. And that voice, that higher-education voice of a generation, feels as welcome as an honorary degree, and definitely as ironic. How does it compare to his previous three records – or eight, if you count his former band? Suffice it to say that’s a rhetorical question. If Joe DiMaggio made albums… well you get the point.

His terrific backing band, the effeminate Jicks, somehow manage to sound eerily like Pavement. Ah, and therein lies the puzzle piece: Pavement were a raucous band indeed, but foremost they were players of songs, and it’s the songs of Malkmus that carried the flag then, and capture the flag now. The topics, as clear as Southern California smog; their modal chord progressions, as twangy as tang; the surprising details that keep the listener off-balance. This is the stuff that Malkmus paves his musical roads with, and apparently it’s here to stay. Like fellow indie rainmaker Britt Daniel of Spoon, this traction doesn’t wallow around in ruts. It’s so sharp, it cuts right through.
*Unlike writers from certain “men’s magazines,” I indeed listened to this whole album. A lot.

(By: Ari Shapiro)