Thursday, June 02, 2005

Stephen Malkmus; back on top form

Steve Malkmus launches into another guitar solo. I'm feeling worried. Not because another of my heroes has succumbed to the desire to draw out songs for eight minutes so that they can squeeze another florid show of notes into the mix. No, Malkmus has been doing that for a while and, while we've had words, me and my Malkmus records (me and Pig Lib hardly talk), we've come to a truce over the issue.

But I'm about, oh, five listens into his new Face The Truth LP and it's disconcerting. A few more seconds pass by and I hear another distorted guitar note come in. He's going to do it again! But I just think, fucking great. Me and Face The Truth are getting on like a house on fire.

It didn't used to be this way. When I first heard Pavement they were a wonderful release from the perfectionist streak and the guitar solo – their sound was curiously brittle and free of excess (if not chaos). They were skewed, awkward, irreverent and singular. Now, Stephen Malkmus is still all that (obviously), but I'm not the only one who took to his first LP Stephen Malkmus and the more recent Pig Lib – as well as the last Pavement album, Terror Twilight - with a bit of reluctance. Out went the most obvious aspects of Pavement's indie-rock repertoire and in their place arrived long guitar workouts, classic rock harmonies, peculiar arrangements and a subdued sounding Malkmus, a million miles from the kid who screamed "No Big Hair!" all those years ago. He was growing up, godamnit.

Now Malkmus is 39 but he sounds fresher - and like he's having a lot more fun – than he has since Brighten the Corners. 'Pencil Rot' is the perfect opener, perhaps not a perfect example of what's to come, but an indication that this time round Steve is hanging a little looser. It begins with a squall of synthesisers and segues into a terrific new wave guitar line and a terrific drumbeat. Malkmus plays most of the instruments this time round and the sound is fresher as a result. You get the feeling that – for all the famous 'slackness' – Malkmus really knows what he wants his stuff to sound like. The song's best moment is the delightfully deadpan rap middle section. "I'm 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. Shitpile!", he sings.

It's the first of about a dozen great moments on the record (yes, including one or two guitar solos which would have J Mascis glowing with pride). Several tracks follow the blueprint of his recent solo work, but the eight minute 'No More Shoes', for example, is a hugely improved take on the prog workouts he brought to the table on Pig Lib. In other places, he gets pretty damn close to prime-era Pavement. The tremendous 'Freeze the Saints' could be an outtake from Crooked Rain and 'Baby C'mon' recalls our hero at his frenetic, splendid best. Often, these days, Malkmus sings in totally different keys to those that made his delivery the blueprint for a thousand copy-cat bands, but on the slight, lovely 'Post-Paint Boy' his vocals roll back the years to that warm, sunny California drawl. He even drops in a disco beat and a vocoder on the impossibly playful 'Kindling for the Master', and it still sounds ace.

Now, there's no point in pretending that Face The Truth is another Crooked Rain or Wowee Zowee. Several tracks ('Mama', 'I've Hardly Been') are listless in comparison, and although part of me admires Malkmus as a brilliantly eccentric and original arranger, some of his decisions are bewildering. Listening to the LP for the first time, album closer 'Malediction', which sounded amazing when Steve played it live last autumn, sounded implausibly flat, knobbled by Malkmus's decision to sing it in a lower pitch and add some crazy overdubs. 'Loud Cloud Crowd' combines a slight, folky guitar line with a sweeping New Order synth line. It just about works.

But Malkmus is just too astonishing a song-writer to let such surface details kill the songs completely. Now, several listens in, songs like 'Malediction' sound a great deal more impressive; the odd arrangements which Malkmus favours begin to sound less wacky and more inspired; odd, intriguing sidesteps, unexpected melodies. The record needs to be lived with. It may (notable instances like 'Pencil Rot' and 'Baby C'mon' aside) lack Pavement’s immediacy, but there are just hundreds of tiny, temporary details which need to be located and understood.

And of course, there's the lyrics, which – as always with Malkmus – deserve another review all of their own. At times he still comes over as a devotee of the Mark E. Smith school of lyric writing, ("The shab ability to locate quagmire hearts on the map", he manages at one point), elsewhere you can see he’s just having fun (the "villain in his head" in 'Pencil Rot' is identified as 'Leather McWhip'). But he’s always been able to write directly, too – the first few lines of 'Mama' are gorgeous ("Mama's in the kitchen with onions / Daddy's in the back with Old Hank / Talkin' 'bout the lasers and bunions, talkin' disability rank/ No, we didn't have too much money / just enough to make the dead ends meet”), and the chorus to 'Freeze the Saints' glides along with the repeated phrase "Let me languish here". On 'It Kills' he sighs, "nine times out of ten I'm not the guidance type / I’ve been sitting on a fence post for the brunt of my life".

What Malkmus has done in the years since he broke up America's finest alternative rock group is reconciled the many influences that lay behind his songwriting. Starting out sounding like a cross between the Swell Maps and The Fall, his songs have gradually swelled as his talent has grown; now he combines the art-rock instincts of early Pavement with the mature, REM-tinged melodicism of their later work and, finally, the eventual demonstration of his love for 70s MOR and prog which first informed his love of music.

Bur rather than settle down and start producing a bland composite, he retains his enthusiasm and keenness to experiment. Fittingly, Face The Truth is his strongest LP in years and also his strangest. It’s also the latest instalment in what is increasingly the finest body of American songwriting of the last couple of decades. Nice work.


Mark said...

Agreed - there's no better songwriter in the US today than Stephen Malkmus.

Anonymous said...

True, but what about PSOI?

jonathan said...

eh? what's PSOI?

jonathan said...

oh right, I get it.

Preston School Of Industry. Okay, to promote even-handedness I'll try to put together a post on them too.

Ben said...

I'm sold!

I haven't played Pig Lib anything like as much as the first solo record - the first one's much more easy to listen to, I think.

As for PSOI, I've got their first album and it's decent but probably not quite enough to convince me on its own that I should invest in the follow-up. I reserve the right to change my mind though...

jonathan said...

I like Preston School Of Industry, especially the occasional Cure/Echo and the Bunnymen aspects of their sound. But let's face it, Steve West could do an album of drum solos and I'd be pointing to its arty, shambolic genius :-)

Anonymous said...

Malkmus is truly one of the few songwriters who I would call a genius and is a truly brilliant musician. I am obsessed with Malkmus' voice. It just speaks to me in a way that few others do (Jeff Magnum and Colin Meloy being the others I think of off the top of my head). The new record is his best solo-Pavement release by far, but his previous 2 solo albums are really great as well.

Anonymous said...

I had the pleasure of seeing SM in San Francisco last week, and he put on a great performance. SM and the Jicks seem like what everyband wish they could do...get paid for having fun.

Anonymous said...

eh. 10x for post )