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
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.