Real Emotional Trash
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks
I’m a fanatical appreciator of absolutely everything Stephen Malkmus has ever created, but such laudatory devotion should not be taken as accepting passivity on my behalf. I like his past efforts in very different ways. Pavement, the band with which Malkmus attained the status of “Clown Prince of Indie Rock,” seems (analogously, of course) like a silly but sexy teenage girl next door. Malkmus’ literary and sardonic ramblings, inextricably combined with the expert sloppiness of the rest of the group, shouted, “We don’t give a fuck, and we’re damn good anyway.”
His solo efforts (backed by the transient and talented Jicks) are more like that teenager’s hot mother. The Jicks are no minivan-piloting soccer mom, however; they’re a MILF, calculatedly beautiful with hints of past wildness, and the insight of maturation to combine intelligence and restraint with downright skill.
MILFs get old, however, and unless you’re really into the May-December thing, they lose their appeal. But Malkmus, now settled down at forty-one with two young children of his own, is far from exhausting his internal think-tank. His fourth post-Pavement release, Real Emotional Trash, offers up genius songs, filled with tastily feral guitar solos and grounded by Malkmus’ vocals, which have only grown smoother and cooler with age.
“Of all my stoned digressions, some have mutated into the truth,” Malkmus slurs at the start of appropriately buzzy opener “Dragonfly Pie,” on which the guitars seem to impersonate the titular insect. This album’s lyrical content is filled with just those kinds of digressions, and, as Malkmus has emphasized in interviews, words just don’t matter as much to him anymore. He’s letting his guitar speak for him now.
Lucky for him (and us), his axe is a great orator. One benefit of age is Malkmus’ increasingly Guitar Hero-worthy ability on his instrument. This skill is especially apparent on “Hopscotch Willie” (the strange, trippy tale of a man falsely convicted of murder, who pants “like a pit bull / minus the mean”) and “Elmo Delmo,” a medieval jam reminiscent of Pig Lib’s “Witch Mountain Bridge.”
The Jicks’ updated lineup certainly adds to the pure goodness of RET. New recruit Janet Weiss (who’s played for Quasi, Elliott Smith and Sleater-Kinney, to name a few) not only hits her drums with grooving fury, but also contributes pure, playful harmonies to several of the album’s tracks. She sounds especially good on standout and closer “Wicked Wanda,” which moves from slow rock pop into pure distorted pleasure as Malkmus pleads, “Strike me square / Into the arms of the air.”
Another standout, “Cold Son” progresses through a fun, synth-filled verse into a gorgeous ballad of a chorus. “Who was it that said the world is my oyster? / I feel like a nympho stuck in a cloister,” he proclaims before degenerating into noisy fade-out nonsense. “Baltimore” has too many catchy sections to count, while rollicking strummer “Gardenia” will surely do well on college radio stations. The only song that seems out of place is the far-too-long title track; “Real Emotional Trash” clocks in at over ten minutes and gets lost in noodling, but this misstep can be forgiven by the time-warp two-chord rock section that comes in around six minutes.
Filled with untouchable guitar solos, well-crafted melodies, and memorably strange lyrics, RET sits pretty in the Malkmus catalogue. It’s distinct from past releases, but it’s not out of the ballpark. It’s not a terribly surprising album, but it’s also quite unlike what you’ve heard from him before. For all these reasons, it’ll dwell in your Discman for months. Way to go, SM & Co.!