The Drama You've Been Craving

Malkmus laughs at the world even as he tries to make sense of it.
No Volvo for Malkmus. Photo by Moses Berkson.
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Monday Feb. 19, 2001

Deciphering Stephen Malkmus

Ex-Pavement frontman shows up with exquisite solo album

By Michael Goldberg

Pavement saved my life. Well, perhaps that's an overstatement, but in a way, not really. In the summer of 1994 I grabbed onto crooked rain, crooked rain like it was a life raft for the soul.

In the early '90s, there was a period when I kinda disconnected. Great records were being made, but I wasn't hearing them. Especially in the latter half of '94, with Kurt Cobain dead and grunge nearly over, I needed new bands and new music that meant something.

Somehow I heard Pavement's crooked rain, crooked rain. I was so moved by it that I went and saw Pavement (those who know me know this is a big deal — I'm no club-hopper), performing many of the crooked rain, crooked rain songs at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall. And then I knew that Pavement were the real thing, that I didn't have to sweat it, that there were still musicians with a fresh take on life putting their thoughts and feelings into music.

There was something very reassuring about this. It made me feel that things were going to be OK.

Goin' Solo

So I stuck with Pavement, through the good albums and the not-quite-so-good albums. I've certainly gotten a whole lot from the Pavement albums released since crooked rain, crooked rain, but I gotta say that album is the best of their work, and it's the one that I go back to again and again.

Now Pavement are no more, but their frontman, singer/writer/guitarist Stephen Malkmus, has a solo album, Stephen Malkmus. Out of respect for what the band he used to be in has meant to me, I've been spending some time with the new album. It's been worth it.

Malkmus told me in 1999 that crooked rain, crooked rain was almost a solo album, that he'd done a lot of the work on it by himself. I can believe that — "Black Book," the forceful album opener of Stephen Malkmus, could almost be off crooked rain....

Stephen Malkmus is a really good album. I've played it more than ten times now, and it has grown and grown and grown on me.

See The Light

Stephen Malkmus has always had a good sense of humor; he manages to laugh at the world even as he tries to make sense of it. There are plenty of light moments on his album, like "Jo Jo's Jacket," in which he takes potshots at Yul Brynner, and "Jenny & the Ess-Dog," about an older guy who plays in a '60s cover band and drives a Volvo with "ancient plates" who pairs up with an 18-year-old lass with "rings on her toes." They sing along to Brothers in Arms "and if there's something wrong with this, they don't see the harm." Naturally, it doesn't last.

At times Malkmus sings like the young Lou Reed — you can really hear it on "The Hook." I've come to the conclusion that his voice and word choice, more than anything, defined and differentiated Pavement, not to take anything away from the contributions of the other former bandmembers. It's just that in a band like Pavement, the singer makes a really big in-your-face impression.

I've always had a difficult time nailing Pavement's sound, and now Malkmus' sound, which isn't that distinguishable from his Pavement days. There's a singsong quality to the music some of the time, even a touch of the folk-rock early-to-middle-period Grateful Dead. But then there are these weird little sonic curlicues, like the ones that show up in "Pink India," making it something other than a leisurely, folky ballad. The easiest way to describe it is "indie rock," in the sense of Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, Death Cab for Cutie and even Sonic Youth.

The CD booklet includes no lyrics, but the first line Malkmus sings is "Offer your trust to a friend who is not what he says." I take it as something of a warning.

Stephen Malkmus always sings like he's got something to say, even if you sometimes suspect he really isn't so sure he does. That's OK. He'll figure it out, and so will we.

And I Dream Of Other Things

I'm sure you know by now that Napster must stop its users from sharing copyrighted song files per the Feb. 12 ruling from the 9th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the company can keep operating until a lower court revises the injunction it issued last fall. For music fans, the days of logging on to Napster, typing in, say, "Beatles" or "Limp Bizkit," and getting instant access to those artists' songs at no cost will end faster than you can say Shawn Fanning. ... No surprise that the sometimes spacey, sometimes ragged, sometimes countrified L.A.-based guitar trio Acetone are signed to Neil Young and his manager's Vapor Records label. Their fourth album, York Blvd., may have been released last year, but you probably missed it. The sometimes-languid rhythms, occasional tonal coloration of a steel guitar and slacker vocals are surprisingly compelling. Sometimes York Blvd. is reminiscent of Wilco's debut, which is, perhaps, a way of saying that there's a bit of early Neil Young and Crazy Horse in these tracks. I'm enchanted by "19," but the album's highlight is probably "Stray." ... A re-formed version of the Soft Boys, including founding members Robyn Hitchcock and Kimberley Rew, will play shows in a handful of cities in March and April. The tour will coincide with the March 17 release of a new version of the English psychedelic-pop group's 1980 album, Underwater Moonlight. The new version will include nine of what Matador calls "bonus tracks," plus a second CD of "rehearsal recordings." The touring band will also include Morris Windsor and Matthew Seligman, current members of Hitchcock's band, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. Confirmed shows include one at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern on March 28, San Francisco's Fillmore on April 7 and L.A.'s Knitting Factory April 9. ... Joining an already ambitious lineup for the ninth Noise Pop fest are Blonde Redhead, the Aislers Set, the Orange Peels, Action Slacks, Damien Jurado, Vue and Preston School of Industry (with ex-Pavement singer/songwriter Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg). Artists previously announced include Fastbacks, Minus 5, White Stripes, Girls Against Boys, Spoon, Mark Eitzel, Superchunk, Young Fresh Fellows, 764-Hero, Zen Guerrilla, Beulah, Oranger and the Bell Rays. Grandaddy, originally scheduled to perform, have had to cancel "due to recuperation time needed for a recurring knee problem suffered by lead singer Jason Lytle," according to a Noise Pop press release. You'll find the schedule of who's playing where and when at the Noise Pop site.

Michael Goldberg is the president of He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

© 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.