About Real Emotional Trash, the new album from Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
“I am not a present to be opened up and parceled out again,” our man insists on “Gardenia,” track seven on his new album. Ha! That’s what you think, pal. From the day nigh two decades ago when the first scratchy sounds of Pavement floated in the ether above Stockton (crown jewel of California’s Central Valley, the sprawling breadbasket that neither the North or the South have claimed in California’s ongoing “two states” culture war; just providing some historical context that will be useful a few sentences later), the music of Stephen Malkmus has been the gift that keeps on keepin’ on.
Did SM not offer the eternal promise of “perfect sound forever”? Was this sly appropriation of a digital age boast for Pavement’s low-bandwidth treble-kicks not a prescient example of that “irony” thing everybody talked about in the ‘90s? Can we then conclude that that by invoking “paralyzed dreams forever” on this album Malkmus foretells some sort of bad moon on the rise?
Hell, I don’t know, and I’m the omniscient narrator of this artist bio. But I will point out that much of Real Emotional Trash, his fourth "solo" LP (this one credited with The Jicks, like his second, Pig Lib), is decidedly low-down and heavy. It could hardly be otherwise with monster drummer Janet Weiss now a full-fledged Jick, alongside bassist Joanna Bolme and guitar/keyboardist Mike Clark.
Meanwhile, Malkmus the guitar hero is on full display here. “Dragonfly Pie,” “Baltimore,” and the title track are alchemic combinations of intricate composition and unfettered jam. Whoa, did I actually type the phrase “unfettered jam”? Scratch that. (Did I actually say “scratch that”? It’s a good thing I'm anonymous as well as omniscient.)
Malkmus’ genius is that he knows exactly when to fetter. These songs may sprawl like the Central Valley (told you), they may spread out like a jet’s flame, but when they reach that last tract house they gracefully spread their wings and head for the unclaimed land beyond. Indeed, although Malkmus makes the Pacific Northwest his home, this feels like a “California” album. Check out how “Real Emotional Trash” begins as a modern-day “Tonight’s the Night,” before evolving into a road trip from the Mexican border to Marin, in the tradition of Pavement’s “Unfair.” And dig those Allman Bros. leads (really!).
Elsewhere, “We Can’t Help You” channels the Band’s “The Weight,” tapping that same vein of late-night melancholia and early-morning lucidity. “Cold Son” sounds like a cruise down the Ventura Highway. And if another song released this year makes you smile as much as “Gardenia,” I have a rare Crust Brothers bootleg with your name on it. While I cannot get with the song’s insistence that its singer is not a “present,” I can sympathize with one line: “don’t want to damn you with the faintest praise.” That’s what it feels like to write about this record, tossing around those historical comparisons, making you read about it when you could be listening to it. So listen, already.