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Stephen Malkmus
Stephen Malkmus
Self-Titled
Matador

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Stephen Malkmus' solo debut is as mature, focused, and charming as it is rambunctious. This first post-Pavement full-length sees the Indie God growing "older" with grace and crafting enjoyable, interesting songs while he's at it. It's no secret that Pavement was getting to a point where they were pulling the wool over everyone's eyes, including their own. Instead of releasing consistently compelling albums like Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, they were padding later albums with grating jams, trying too hard to sound cool. There's nothing to suggest filler here; the backseat drivers are gone and the master chef is allowed to step forward.

The production is clean and dynamic. Malkmus' guitar work is consistently assured, as it swirls or takes second chair to keyboards, as appropriate. He has also reeled in his vocal extremes, unleashing emotion only when necessary, which means the songs are far more even, allowing the album to work better as a whole.

"Black Book" opens the disc with some overly awkward lyrics. The track is reminiscent of a catchy Pavement song, but it's actually the album's weakest moment. Was it sequenced first to quell the fears of ardent Pavement fans? The album is too good for that to be necessary. "Phantasies" fairs better; it's a big dose of Pop euphoria with Malkmus' lazy, eloquent vocal style in full effect. Malkmus mostly sing-speaks until he's required to reach for the highs and lows, but the music is thankfully more bubbly and carefree than recent Pavement songs. "Jo Jo's Jacket" also deals in the tongue-in-cheek lyrics that critics latch onto (and many can't get past), with Malkmus singing about Yul Brynner movies, house music and human candy canes. Beneath the lyrics, if you listen, you'll find a catchy, marvellous song.

"The Hook" sounds similar, on the surface, to one of Pavement's rolling vibe-jams, but it's far more polished and worthwhile. "Pink India" is another "Hey, that's Pavement" moment. Like "The Hook," it's more easygoing and less based on slacker affectation than Malkmus songs of old, and thus worthy of many repeat listens.

"Trojan Curfew" sees Malkmus in near-balladeer mode. Though he name-checks Agamemnon and the city of Troy, the song is quite touching, with particular kudos going to the sweet keyboard sound provided by Joanna Bolme. "Jenn & the Ess-Dog" might be the album's most complicated, melodic song. It sees Malkmus effortlessly echoing both The Beatles' pop psychedelia and The Rolling Stones' angsty rock.

Malkmus' solo debut is similar, in a sense, to Liz Phair's Whitechocolatespaceegg. Phair (a peer and former labelmate) was under pressure to create a quality follow-up to the excellent Exile in Guyville. The result was Whip-smart, an album that sounded obnoxious and misguided -- on a good day. It wasn't until Phair stopped piling on the noise that she again found success. Whitechocolatespaceegg, her third album, was a mini-revelation of great hooks and charming vignettes. Malkmus has done the same thing here. He hasn't gone minimal, but there's much less noise and skronk in the mix, and the songwriting suggests an artist in touch with his muse and his musical interests.

Pavement lovers should swoon for Stephen Malkmus, especially those who were disappointed by the aimlessness of recent Pavement albums. This is an accomplished, exuberant listen from start to finish, and it should win Matador's resident genius a wider audience (hello, old folk). There's nothing groundbreaking here, but that wasn't the intention. Malkmus isn't trying to be the savior of rock music -- that was a role that fans and critics mistakenly bestowed. He's now free to write and perform simple, elegant songs that whisper sweet nothings and explode into joyous choruses, amid the best hooks and melodies around.

-- Tim DiGravina
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