A bit early in 2008, I think, to start talking about Albums Of The Year and such. But over the past week, I must admit I’ve been completely knocked out by the new Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks album. It’s called “Real Emotional Trash”, and it’s out in March on Domino in the UK.
Malkmus, I guess, now has some kind of senior guru status in the indie/college rock world, with Pavement being spiritual godfathers of so much of the erudite, skewed music that seems to be selling bucketloads in the States these days. It is, I’m sure, the source of infinite wry amusement to Malkmus – if not to some of his ex-bandmates – that Pavement never got within light years of the Billboard charts, while their descendants like Modest Mouse and The Shins can effortlessly fetch up in the Top Five. Maybe the fact that history will see Pavement as one of the best and most important bands of the past 20 years is satisfying enough.
It certainly hasn’t knocked Malkmus off his current musical trajectory. “Real Emotional Trash” is his fourth post-Pavement album, though it feels like a follow-up to the second one, “Pig Lib”, which also explicitly featured The Jicks as backing band, rather than 2005’s solo and slightly disappointing “Face The Truth”. One of the nice things about these records, beyond their general excellence, is the sense is that Malkmus is on a similar musical path of discovery to many of us; that while skinny collegiate lo-fi might be lucrative these days, it’s not half as interesting as heavy, intricate jams.
Like “Pig Lib”, “Real Emotional Trash” features elaborate, sometimes charmingly proggish folk-rock melodies, still maintaining those quizzical, ambulatory vocal lines which were so winning in Pavement, filled out with some incredibly fluent, expressive playing. I’m sure Malkmus’ encyclopaedic and arcane tastes would throw up much more interesting and specific reference points than those I can manage this morning, but I’m variously reminded of Richard Thompson, Television, The Grateful Dead – wiry, silvery guitarists who head for cosmic extremes in a way which is at once precise and zigzagging. “Hopscotch Willy” is playing now, and it’s just incredible; a hairy, intuitive groove that keeps rolling through new vistas and valleys, powered by the equally gifted Jicks.
The newest Jicks recruit is the wonderful Janet Weiss, from Sleater-Kinney and Quasi, and it’s clear that she’s by some distance the best drummer Malkmus has ever employed. There’s a theory that this is how he always wanted to sound, but that Pavement never had the musical chops to keep up with his ideas (particularly in the drummer’s seat). They made up for this, of course, with great songs, immense charm and, at their best, a sense that five men were accidentally and entertainingly heading in the same direction by accident.
Listening to the title track, or the earthy spacerock of “Elmo Delmo” here, it’s plain that virtuosity hasn’t eradicated the maverick sense of fun that’s integral to Malkmus’ appeal. He’s a lot warmer than some withering, cerebral stereotypes might suggest, too; “Out Of Reaches”, in particular, is as pretty and tender a song as he’s ever written (you’ll have to forgive me, but I haven’t been listening close enough to parse the lyrics. I’ll get there in a month or so, maybe).
We’re onto that title track now, the early ebbing, chiming stages of it. By the end of its ten minutes, we’ll have wandered brilliantly through multiple sections, including one galloping bit around six minutes in which, it occurred to me over the weekend, is very roughly like “Heroes And Villains” as re-imagined by Status Quo. I realise that might not be the most appetising comparison I’ve ever made, but, honestly, it works.
I have a press release in front of me, and its scanty info reveals that “Real Emotional Trash” “was recorded in Montana by TJ Doherty, whose credits include Wilco and Sonic Youth”. That makes sense, since those two bands strike me as being Malkmus and The Jicks’ vague peers these days; ambitious, expansive, relaxed, propelled by a fantastic understanding between bandmembers that can move mighty songs into big, free, even more satisfactory pieces of music.
But the Status Quo bit has just started. You’ll have to excuse me. . .