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Stephen Malkmus

+ {Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks}

Ditching PAVEMENT and going off-road, STEPHEN MALKMUS (born May 30, 1966, Santa Monica, California) had probably considered the eventual consequences of a solo career long before his superb band were coming to the end of their fulfilling 10-year tenure. A perfect cure for youths diverting away from the claustrophobic grunge scene that kicked off the 90s, the weird and wonderful world of PAVEMENT (initially America’s answer to The FALL), had a raft of lo-fi “Gold Soundz” at the ready for their growing legion of fuzzy followers.
Prior to the break-up of PAVEMENT, Stephen produced early 90s album “Eyes Wide Smile” for Faith Over Reason, while for several years he accompanied David Berman in his indie-country outfit, The SILVER JEWS. Alongside PAVEMENT rhythmatists Bob Nastanovich and Steve West, the loose collective completed “Starlite Walker” (1994), while Stephen, himself, stuck around for 1998’s “American Water”; in the same year, he was part of SILKWORM offshoot, The Crust Brothers, on their one and only set of cover songs, “Marquee Mark”.
Moving to Portland, Oregon, where he met his wife and subsequently settled down with their family (two children Sunday and Lottie), his eponymous STEPHEN MALKMUS (2001) {*8} set, reclaimed territory left by his former band’s fracture. Like a lost PAVEMENT album, this was probably the direction his band would’ve headed in considering the tone of the joyful “Terror Twilight” compared with that of the stuffy, cynically serious “Brighten The Corners”. The songs were laced with eclectic charm, with MALKMUS’ half-spoken soft vox matching that of the jangling, uptempo songs such as `Jo Jo’s Jacket’ and the irresistible `Troubbble’. But there were still dark overtones; `Black Book’ had the slightly singular twang of a PAVEMENT song, circa “Wowee Zowee”, whilst `Church On White’ saw the man sing with beautiful integrity, his first love song since PM’s `Major Leagues’.
Credited to STEPHEN MALKMUS & THE JICKS, the singer’s US Top 100 sophomore effort, PIG LIB (2003) {*6}, wasn’t quite so immediate, with less of the spontaneity and mishap of classic PAVEMENT, and more of the musical bonhomie which characterised a more fruitful working relationship. It was certainly Stephen’s most polished and rounded effort to date, although it could’ve done with a bit more edge and a bigger injection of the man’s legendary wry wit. Like some well-groomed LOU REED, MALKMUS only really got into gear on `Vanessa From Queens’, `Craw Song’ and `Animal Midnight’, while the 9-minute treasure `1% Of Us’ takes its listener into almost kaleidoscopic, FAIRPORT prog-folk territory – worth the admission price on its own. The Jicks, incidentally, were made up from his “solo” band, Joanna Bolme (bass) and John Moen (percussion/drums), with the addition of keyboard-player/guitarist, Mike Clark.
Retaining his players (although uncredited once again), FACE THE TRUTH (2005) {*7}, was a drawing together of the multitudinous musical arcana that drove his art, a bracing, pendulous tour through the caverns of the MALKMUS mind. Kicking off with the halter-reined, zebra-crossing electro of `Pencil Rot’, centered with the epic `No More Shoes’ – all 8 oddly plangent minutes of it – and scattershot with bleeping wild cards like `Baby C’mon’, the record issued a rhetorical riposte to those who’d predicted a pipe-and-slippers phase.
Reuniting with his trusty Jicks (ex-SLEATER-KINNEY drummer Janet Weiss moving into Moen’s seat), “comeback” set REAL EMOTIONAL TRASH (2008) {*8}, restored some of the lost ground left by its predecessor. Taking a leaf from MERCURY REV or NEIL YOUNG, 40-something Stephen surged toward middle age with his electric guitar and turned-up amps super-glued to his hippy torso. 60s psychedelic and 70s self-indulgence was the order of the day as god-like lead guitarist MALKMUS explored all possibilities on `Hopscotch Willie’, `Baltimore’, the folky `Wicked Wanda’ and the mind-blowing QUICKSILVER-like title track.
In early 2010, to bolster sales of an accompanying “Quarantine The Past: The Best Of Pavement” set, Stephen and his boyhood buddy, Scott Kannberg (aka SPIRAL STAIRS) – and other members – reunited the sadly-missed PM for several concerts.
Notable for BECK’s first proper production set, SM&TJ’s Top 50 breakthrough MIRROR TRAFFIC (2011) {*8} scaled back time when kaleidoscopic pop and country-folk were all in a Laurel Canyon tizzy – that’s not to say Stephen bypassed sonic rawk blasts altogether. Whether one floated their fuzzbox boat by way of opal-tastic `Stick Figures In Love’, or the mighty PAVEMENT-esque `Spazz’, or the skewed country-ish `No One Is (As I Are Be)’, MALKMUS was inspirational in all his undertakings.
Still a stalwart with Matador Records (and Domino in the UK), Stephen and his family duly moved out to Berlin, Germany. Although there’d been a limited-edition/vinyl-only delivery of CAN’S EGE BAMYASI (2013) {*6}, its highly unlikely there’ll be a full-blown switch to kraut-rock. With covers over the years of `The Poet And The Witch’ (MELLOW CANDLE), `Keep The Faith’ (BLACK OAK ARKANSAS), `That’s What Mama Said’ (Coloured Balls) and `Alien Boy’ (GREG SAGE), one could never predict where the mighty MALKMUS would end up.
WIG-OUT AT JAGBAGS (2014) {*9} – with The Jicks – saw Stephen disconnect from the real world once again, giving fans plenty scope to descramble or deconstruct the codes in his multi-tagged “Jicksaws” of indie-rock’n’roll connections. Long-time Malkmus-ians of the man will know only too well to expect the odd piece of pot-headed psychedelia; in the musing melodies of `Lariat’, `Houston Hades’, `Planetary Motion’ and `The Janitor Revealed’, the listener’s transported to a time when MALKMUS wasn’t even there – or was he? And while Janet Weiss was a loss to The Jicks (in 2011), replacement drummer Jake Morris was a gain. From gooey punk-rock by way of `Rumble At The Rainbo’ or the BILLY JOEL-meets-STEELY DAN-styled `Chartjunk’, to the dreamscape axe-fingering of `Independence Street’ and the psych/prog-defying `Surreal Teenagers’, MALKMUS magnifies manic mediocre to an art-form.
A long-ish period of inactivity for STEPHEN MALKMUS AND THE JICKS was a huge gamble, though on a critical level at least, 2018’s umpteenth set SPARKLE HARD {*8} proved to be worth the wait. If fans of the alt/indie scene during the 80s had also missed SONIC YOUTH’s Kim Gordon, the seasoned singer popped up in an unusually quaint country-rawk duet, `Refute’. The whole project was produced by The DECEMBERISTS’ Chris Funk, so there was something of a freewheeling sprawl on imaginative best bits, `Middle America’, `Cast Off’, `Bike Lane’, `Solid Silk’, `Shiggy’ and the schizoid, pastoral-meets-psychedelic, `Kite’.
An experimental solo project by STEPHEN MALKMUS – put on hold from 2018 – finally got the green light from Domino a year on. The album in question, GROOVE DENIED {*7}, pushed the boundaries somewhat, leaving behind the freewheeling alt-pop of “Sparkle Hard” for a robotic and cold Krautrock. Running at only 33 minutes, `Belziger Faceplant’ and `Viktor Borgia’ nevertheless revealed his off-kilter nuance to the nth degree; though the fuzzy garage aesthetic of `Rushing The Acid Frat’, `Come Get Me’ and `Ocean Of Revenge’ recalled the days when even PAVEMENT flip-sides were the bees knees.
STEPHEN J. MALKMUS – as he was now billed; the J. for Joseph – filtered back into one’s subconscious with the tripped-out psych-folk album, TRADITIONAL TECHNIQUES (2020) {*10}. Produced by Chris Funk and accentuated by the trebly elements of Matt Sweeney (ex-CHAVEZ, ex-ZWAN), there are no words profound enough to describe the mind-bending and chilled-out cosmic country opener, `ACC Kirtan’; contender for track of the year/decade and like follow-on classics `Xian Man’ and `The Greatest Own In Legal History’, subliminally the re-birth of The VELVET UNDERGROUND. If Stephen’s groovy genius had been denied in recent times (this set virtually walks all over PAVEMENT), the slanted chord changes on `Cash Up’ and the eastern winds of `Shadowbanned’ swayed with an aesthetic ease. The second half highlights (from `What Kind Of Person’, `Flowin’ Robes’ and the chirpy `Brainwashed’ to the tear-jerking `Amberjack’ and `Juliefuckingette’) were almost equally effective and firmly wired into the here and now pre-you-know-what.
© MC Strong 2002-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Sep2013-Mar2020

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  1. phil7jackson

    Just saying hello and soon to check out Stephen Malkmus’s TRADITIONAL TECHNIQUES on your recommendation., Martin.

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