Give the Guitarist Some
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Real Emotional Trash
Portland, Oregon, may be crawling with bands lately, but at least there's usually an extra musician floating around when you need one. For former Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus, changing drummers in his current band, the Jicks, may have been the key to making their outstanding new album Real Emotional Trash the gem that it is. In a kinetic merger of indie-rock royalty, Malkmus replaced John Moen (who has permanently joined the crosstown Decemberists) with the newly available Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, and a combustible new combination was born. They have produced a record that rocks most emphatically, and showcases the blazing Malkmus guitar chops like no record before it.
“Dragonfly Pie” opens the album with a sludgy, dark, Black Sabbath-like riff anchored by the female rhythm section of Weiss and bassist Joanna Bolme. Malkmus’ famously deadpan vocals sweep in with the declarative lyric, “Of all my stoned digressions / Some have mutated in- / to the truth / Not a spoof.” His lead guitar line lacerating through the mix, it’s a powerful opening volley and a portent of things to come. But it’s rarely a straightforward job with Malkmus and the Jicks, as it never was with Pavement. Just when you begin to presume that he has finally written his first full-fledged heavy metal song, it detours into a bouncy sing-song chorus that could be an inspirational children’s chant: “Can’t be what you ought to be / Gotta be what you wanna be / Take it with pride / Like a dragonfly / Dragonfly wants a piece of pie.” Then it’s back to the minor-chord verse and some dirty electric-guitar soloing, layered out with Mike Clark’s shimmering keyboards.
In his Pavement days, Stephen Malkmus shifted genres easily and often, most colorfully on the indie-rock opus, Wowie Zowie, which was bursting with nearly as much variety as the Beatles’ White Album. The prankster word-play master could weave a lyric line with pop-culture references and real feeling simultaneously, and back it up with some of the strongest rock songwriting and most infectious guitar lines of the 1990s. As the band’s front man, Malkmus had a blend of laissez-faire drollness and artistic commitment that made him widely admired but tough to pin down. The five albums that Pavement left behind have been hugely influential, and yet they have remained inimitable. Bands as enduring as Wilco and Spoon owe Pavement a debt of gratitude for forging a path that other intelligent, witty rock stars could follow. Fortunately, the man behind the myth has been very busy cooking up riffs in his Southeast Portland basement, and following three solo records that ranged from the comic to the sublime, he has raised the guitar stakes to the Orange Alert level on his new album.
A sack of clever lyrics may make you a poet, but if you want to rock you’d better know how to wield an axe, and Real Emotional Trash, recorded in Portland, Montana, and Brooklyn, delivers ten tracks of guitar-reckoning that remind us of that fact. Before the band had recorded the record, Janet Weiss told the Portland Mercury, “I’ve been intrigued with the possibility of playing with the Jicks ever since John Moen left to be a Decemberist full-time.” Of Malkmus, she said, “What self-respecting musician wouldn’t jump at the chance to play with one of the staggering guitarists of our generation? I appreciate how far-out and wild he gets with his playing.”
The feeling is evidently mutual, because there is a confidence to Malkmus’s playing here, buoyed by Weiss’s urgent drumming, that exceeds anything he’s shown us before. The songs average a longish but not overly self-indulgent six-minutes-plus apiece, a result of Malkmus airing out the guitar, breaking out sonic soundscapes and jagged, soaring hooks, but always coming back to the song when it’s time. Despite his more-exploratory-than-usual approach on Real Emotional Trash, however, Malkmus is far from casual or meandering on the album. He seems to have set out to dispel the notion of himself as merely a clever wordsmith and remind us that he is as good a player as any in the indie-rock world, powering through verse/chorus/verse with measured intensity and spontaneous flourishes alike. Trash is the most consistently guitar-heavy record of his solo career.
If it’s not necessarily a more mature Malkmus on this record, it certainly appears to be a more level-headed and perhaps better-centered one. His tricky arrangements and double-entendre-laden lyrical hijinx are still at play, but there is something else going on here: The record just seems to have more weight. It could be the addition of the veteran drummer Weiss or the birth of his second child, or it may be that he was going through a particularly grounded period when he wrote the album, but there is the palpable sense that he means business.
The title track is a ten-minute epic that shifts gears several times and builds to a pealing climax. “Cold Son,” with its snaking keyboard line, is reminiscent of the Cars circa 1979. “Hopscotch Willie,” a song about a forlorn gangland character, could be a lost track from Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic: “Willie was found / Not far from the scene / He was panting like a pit bull / Minus the mean.” Malkmus is a master at painting pictures with his lyrics, and they can run from absurd—“Wicked, wicked Wanda, what was it that spawned ya? / A pretty little spider / With Hollywood inside her ”—to searing—“You’ve got the energy of a classic creep / With sex vibe for miles / And shark eyes asleep.” Malkmus’s ninth album on Matador Records, Real Emotional Trash gives you all of that, but you also get one the greatest active rock guitarists cutting loose with a new band, and—trust me, Pavement fans—you don’t want to miss it.
Todd Simmons is a writer/actor/improviser. He lives in the East Village.