Stephen Malkmus Just Can’t Apply Himself
Stephen Malkmus is one quirky motherfucker.
The quirky charm has always been his calling card, ever since Pavement’s emergence in the early 1990s. His shit-eating grin and know-it-all-ness seeped into ever corner of the band’s music, making him the understood frontman in a group known for its members’ shambling individuality. Pavement made sardonic, witty little songs that never seemed finished, but always had plenty of ideas lying about in the margins. Sometimes, it was as if the band cared little if anyone liked them or not. They were immediately adored.
1992’s Slanted & Enchanted (Matador) was slacker heaven. Flashes of Malkmus brilliance (“Summer Babe,” “Loretta’s Scars”) shared space with abbreviated nonsense that made more than a few people toss the thing in the used bin. But patience would prove to highlight the album and the group’s considerable ability, even if their smart-aleck, winking approach to Indie was at times annoying. Slanted’s momentum and Malkmus’ emerging dreamboat status made Pavement a household name by 1994 and the Matador release of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Er, at least in Indie households. While “Cut Your Hair” was the first song on way too many mix tapes that year, its Orange Whip goodness didn’t translate into mainstream acceptance for the band of hipster doofuses. Which wasn’t surprising. Even though Malkmus was now considered This Year’s Evan Dando, and had obvious and considerable talent, the output was just too damn, well, quirky.
Fast forward to 2000. Pavement had been dissolved since 1999. By this point, everyone knew that Malkmus had pretty much been the id, ego, and super-ego of that group, making his announcement of solo plans all the more exciting for aging Indie Rockers everywhere. Guys who hung up the big glasses and threw out the band T shirts years ago were salivating at the thought of Stephen Malkmus – the Pope of Indie Rock – releasing new material. Because Indie just wasn’t the same anymore. The subdivisions of math rock, stoner rock, slo-core, lo-fi, no-fi, and of course the ever-ambiguous Emo had diluted a formula that had once been so strong with The Force. Back in the Good Old Days (1997), things were just simpler, with less labels, less bands, and less shit to remember about who had released its limited edition clear 7″ on Nowhere Records out of Budapest. Malkmus’ return was almost as good as a Pixies reunion tour.
Recorded in Portland as The Jicks with John Moen (drums) and bassist Joanna Bolme, the long-awaited solo debut from Indie’s golden child was – drum roll, please – quirky. It was also all Malkmus, all the time. Originally rumored to be named Swedish Reggae, Matador released the record as a self-titled affair with Our Kid’s good lookin’ mug plastered all over the cover like some kind of post-Indie Leif Garrett. One was surprised when there were no layouts in Tiger Beat or action-figure tie-ins with Hasbro. Because Stephen Malkmus really is the coolest kid in class. Indie girls love his sunlit hair, ambling frame and earnest vocals. Indie guys envy his offhandedly genius guitar playing and – let’s face it – his status. He’s on top of the Indie world, and he seems to have achieved this effortlessly.
In grade school, there was a kid named John Dubiski. And he had a boom box. It wasn’t your average Radio Shack hack job. Oh no, it was a full-on, Radio Rahib special with all the fixin’s. Of course, John Dubiski was the most popular guy in the schoolyard. Not only did he possess the boom box; his easygoing confidence and utter lack of meanness made him impossible to dislike. At Park Day, when he sat with your group and turned up the radio on his rig, it was like being granted an audience with The Pope of the Fifth Grade. Girls chattered and swooned; the boys stood silent, reveling in his aura. We kissed the ring of cool, to feel a little cooler ourselves.
On Friday night, the John Dubiski of Indie Rock showed off his new ghetto blaster.
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks at Metro, 4/5
Upon taking the stage, Malkmus and his incredible hair were instantly recognizable. Launching into “Jennifer And The Ess-Dog,” a driving number from the album that tells the sad story of a Kasey Kasem-like long distance love affair, The Jicks proved adept at propelling songs along in a manner that Pavement didn’t employ enough. While his old band was too often sidetracked into meandering absurdity like Rock and Roll A.D.D. sufferers, the solo material is all meat, no gristle. Gorgeous ballads like “Church on White” showcase Malkmus’ sparkling songwriting talent, while hook-y numbers like “Discretion Grove” and the redundantly titled “Hook” build a sunlit groove. The new Bakersfield Sound? Maybe. Pavement always had a distinctly west-coast vibe, but it was usually shit-canned in favor of off-kilter shenanigans and inside jokes. Malkmus’ solo work is more focused, but it retains that — here we go again – quirkiness that Our Favorite Indie Kid just can’t seem to outgrow. Songs like “Black Book” and “Troubbble” are finely rendered, but with a bleary-eyed laziness that betrays the songwriter’s lethargy. It’s music for sleepyheads.
On stage, Malkmus’ fueled his tunes with fiery, psychedelic guitar work that really amp’d up the material. Mixing with driving percussion and the odd keyboard flourish, there were points during the set where The Jicks were a real Rock and Roll band, and not simply another showcase for Malkmus’ sidelong wit. During an encore that featured covers including CCR’s “Lodi,” the band reached for heights not even suggested on record, and achieved them resoundingly. Playing guitar behind his head, through his legs, and on his back, Stephen Malkmus may have showed his true colors as a (drop the Indie) Rocker. If only his sense of humor would let him do that all the time.
It’s interesting to return to his studio material after watching him onstage. The songs’ joke-y lyrics mix well with the focused arrangements and crystalline production. But despite Matador Records’ attempts at marketing Stephen Malkmus as the alternative Robbie Williams, the actual music will still not appeal to anyone outside of The Indie Universe. Even though his muse has led him far enough away from Pavement’s silliness to create a solid solo effort, it’s not exactly Top 40 material. And the funniest thing about it is that no one (besides maybe the bean counters at Matador) really cares. At 35, Malkmus has made a career out of being a slacker genius. He has conquered the Indie world, with literally hundreds of adoring fans in every club in every city. Those same fans don’t want to see Their Man on TRL; indeed, that would ruin his “Indie Cred,” and then they’d have to move on to Scott Kannberg’s Pavement solo project. And that’s no fun. Malkmus and The Jicks sold out two shows in Chicago. The crowd was a mixture of aging Indie Rockers and young kids hip to the scene. And everyone there was in love with Malkmus’ moves, because he’s the coolest damn kid in Indie. Always was; still is.
The summer after fifth grade, John Dubiski’s family moved, and no one ever saw him again. But we all remembered him and his boom box at Park Day, shuffling along with his bright eyes and easygoing demeanor. And for that period in time, we had John Dubiski, his coolness, and his ghetto blaster all to ourselves. And we felt cooler.