Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
The Warsaw, Brooklyn NY, Dec. 6, 2002
I’m going to tell you something that makes me look like a weirdo or perhaps, just a sad person. I once wrote a song about Stephen Malkmus and gave a tape of it to a roadie at a Pavement show. “Will you give this to Stephen?” I asked. The roadie looked at me kindly, like he must have looked at all the Stephen maniacs, and said, “I’ll make sure he gets it.” I was thrilled! Pavement’s roadie had spoken to me kindly! Talk about a brush with greatness. However, that was that. I never heard a word about my offering. (Did I have my name and phone number on the tape? OF COURSE.) Years later, Malkmus said in a chickfactor interview that ‘kids’ sometimes gave him tapes with songs about him: “They go, ‘Steve Malkmus! Steve Malkmus!’ Stuff like that.”
Well, my lyrics were much better than that. But I suppose my song was in the genre of songs that just rant: “Steve Malkmus!” I love Stephen Malkmus! I think he’s heart-stoppingly brilliant, gifted and beautiful. And the good news is he seems to be going strong with the Jicks, his band-since-Pavement, to judge by the show they played at the Warsaw in Brooklyn last weekend. The Jicks still come across as a little stunned to be backing this indie rock icon, but musically they more than just keep pace with their godlike frontman. Whether they’re rocking out or attacking the off-kilter rhythms of one of the experimental numbers from the new album, the Jicks provided tight, sensitive backing all night.
And Malkmus looked happier with them than I ever saw him look with Pavement. He seems liberated, loosened up. Whereas with Pavement he was given to ultra-dry between-song comments like: “You applaud as a way of giving thanks and I say thank you, in return,” at the SM and the Jicks show, he responded with grins to fans’ shouted songs requests, and when someone yelled “Turn up the Malk-man!” he said, “Turn up the Malk-man? I can’t believe I admitted I just heard you say that.” But it was said with a smile, while with Pavement he often looked brittle and edgy.
Unabashedly lyrical, melodic and playful, Malkmus now seems all about merging with the classic rock he’s always acknowledged as an inspiration. (He did “Forever My Love” as a cover – that’s how merged he is.) The guitar sounds of bands like Creedence and the Beatles seem channeled through Malkmus’s searing guitar solos, though his singing is, as always, an idiosyncratic musical dream. And he just gets better as a singer – listening to him live, I’ve always been amazed at his ability to leap into that staccato yelping he does, sometimes at falsetto pitch, and then drop right back into a solid note with the precision of a needle, perfectly cued, dropping onto a spinning groove.
The band played mostly songs from the new album, and a few from the old one. The songs off the new album sound wilder and richer – more like Wowee Zowie-era Pavement songs. The first number was one of the jaw-droppingly beautiful melodies Malkmus occasionally pens, as pretty as “Range Life,” “Father to a Sister of Thought.” The lyrics went kind of like: “If you haven’t found your way, and you can’t get out of your head, never mind, ’cause you will find your way.” (Not word for word.) SM sang the song tenderly and ended it with a tiny smirk as if he’s aware that he’s changed his tune over the years. “Hang on, you’ll be okay” is a far cry from “I care, I care, I really don’t care.” Next they did “Jo Jo’s Jacket” from the debut cd – bouncy and fun. Next was an experimental number from the new record – short bursts of arrhythmic noise that drop abruptly into grooves. Interesting. I think a new song called “Vanessa From Queens” was next. Then “Vague Space” from the first cd, with its Beatles-quote chorus, “I loooove to turn you on.”
At this point I made the crucial mistake of leaving my excellent vantage point near the front, where the sound had been crisp and the view as good as you’ll get in one of those indie throngs, and I headed for the back just to jot down some notes. Idiotic. I ended up lost in a dense mass of bodies at the back of the hall, and despite plenty of shifting around, the show never regained its sonic splendor for me. My friend said the speakers were placed too low for the sound to travel out well in the whole space. I’m sure that was true, and it’s a lesson: Never leave your good spot just to try to make a few notes. Try to rely on your memory. You can have a beer after the show. Etc.
They did “Jenny and the Ess Dog,” one of my favorites from the first cd, and they did some rockers I didn’t recognize, and they didn’t do any Pavement songs, despite shouted requests. “Forever My Love” was a high point – performed with total seriousness, it had most of the audience singing along. People seemed less familiar with the cover the band did as an the encore, but I loved it – the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “Third Rate Romance.” The last song of the night featured the band relaxing into an extended jam, endless and euphoric. My note for that song reads, “throbbing heaven.”
We all left happy. “It was good – kind of mainstream but not?” a girl on the subway platform said to her boyfriend. She was too young to probably know a lot of Pavement, so she was coming in fresh to this stage of Malkmus’s career. “Kind of mainstream but not” doesn’t tell his story, but it’s an accurate description of someone who doesn’t want to be out of reach anymore. With Pavement, Malkmus wrote a lot of songs about disenchantment, brief relationships and boredom. Now he seems bored with his earlier boredom. The Grace Kelly of indie rock is getting down.