Friday, March 28, 2008

Album Review: "Real Emotional Trash" by Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks

I really shouldn't like Steve Malkmus's voice. He has this sarcastic, flippant affectation to his singing that would probably grate the hell out of me were I... well, anybody else. Even in his most dramatic moments, his voice sounds like somebody with an inside joke caught in their head - an inside joke that they find really funny and one that you, the listener, wound never get in a million years. Basically, he sounds like an asshole. A talented asshole, but an asshole nonetheless.

Yet I love it. I've listened to Pavement so much that his voice sounds like that of an old friend, and even his smart-alecky I-am-better-than-you attitude makes me swoon. This is because, unlike most, Malkmus knows how to USE his voice, somehow figuring out how to sound uncaring and majestic at the same time. Who the hell knows how to do that? Lou Reed? That's the only other example I can think of. Again, there is some serious talent behind that asshole of a voice, and if you've got talent you can get away with a lot.

And that goes for his songwriting too, which is why he's had the most (critically) successful solo career of any other Pavement graduate - he was their lead singer/songwriter, after all, and their last album was practically a dry-run for his solo stuff. Now, I only have one of Malkmus's solo works, and that's his self-titled debut. I dug it - there's a lot of numbers on there that could easily stand up with some of Pavement's later works, and it genuinely sounded like Malkmus was enjoying the freedom afforded by working on his own (even though he had plenty of freedom in Pavement, but whatever).

Upon first listen, "Real Emotional Trash" didn't do much for me. I played it once, found it pleasant, and didn't play it again for another couple weeks or so. See, I kind of have this bad habit of building my expectations up way too high when listening to a hyped-up album, and when it doesn't sound exactly like I want it to sound, I ignore it. The first time I listened to "Automatic for the People," it did nothing for me and I didn't listen to it again for months - the next time I put it on, it all of the sudden sounded like the best album I'd heard in years. It is a weird habit of mine, and unfortunately one that "Trash" fell victim too. While my hopes for it weren't monumental, it quickly became background noise, and I didn't like it as much as Malkmus's charmingly carefree debut. It was too dour, too jammy, and the tracks were too long for my tastes.

Then, of course, I listened to it a second time and got a real kick out of it. No, this is not the same sound of Malkmus's debut, but I'll be damned if I don't like this incarnation of Malkmus even better. "Trash" is the kind of album you could call a "guitar album" - you know, lots of long interlocking guitar solos, careening along with a slow-burnin' rockin' vibe that either becomes more and more interesting upon each listen or a constant chore to sit through. I don't like most jam-based albums, so I'll give due credit to the Jicks that this album falls into the former category - like Television's "Marquee Moon" and Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," the solos are melodic and oftentimes very pretty, and the band itself sounds tight and in control, without any aimless wank-noodlin' that make bands like the Mars Volta grate my virgin ears. Malkmus has been playing with the Jicks for almost a decade now (yikeroo), so I guess it's natural to hear them so comfortable and focused.

And yeah, those guitars, they just sound cool. Fuzzy as all hell, jumpy, slow when they need to be but never boring, even on the ten-minute title track that seems to burn right on by without ever feeling ten minutes long. But man, it ain't just the guitars - there's an occasional piano, some electronics, and solid drumming from ex-Sleater Kinney drummer Janet Weiss. And of course, there's Malkmus's charming-asshole voice, shifting between disaffected cool and crafty sweetness constantly, with his usual cache of overly-intellectual lyrics that means nothing but are fun as hell to sing along with. Take the ending of "Wicked Wanda": "Strike me square / Into the arms of the air" - or the ending of "Hopscotch Willie": "Willie was found not far from the scene / He was pantin' like a pitbull minus the mean." You don't need to know exactly what the "meaning" behind those lyrics are, they're just cool and they sound good. You can't say that about many lyrics. Even better is when he gets some backing vocal accompaniment from his female bandmates (there's two of them, damnit, I don't know which one is singing - jeez, Malkmus, why you lettin' dames in your band). They give songs like "Gardenia" and "We Can't Help You" a sunny, laid-back vibe that I find irresistible.

Oh and hey, there's songs on this album, too! I will admit, one of the reasons I didn't gravitate towards this album immediately is 'cause lots of the songs sound the same, but not in a bad way! They meld together, man, if you can totally dig that concept. The whole thing sounds like the Jicks just hangin' out and jammin' out some songs together in one night, so while the band does sound kinda similar track to track, they make the album a seamless affair - "Dragonfly Pie" burns right into "Hopscotch Willie," and leads right into "Cold Son". They're all darker, minor-key rockers, but they're cool. I have to admit, though, that while the longer tracks are great and are never boring, my favorite song here is the shortest - "Gardenia," clocking in at that classic pop-single length of 2:50, is such a fun song that I can't help listening to it over and over. Also I have no idea why Malkmus would compare anybody to a shrub, but y'know, this is the same guy who penned the classic line "Now I’m getting older / Maybe I’d like to fuck a woman and make one."

But "Real Emotional Trash", at the end of the day, is just a confident, rockin' album by a solid band led by the most talented prick in rock 'n roll. I don't know if the Jicks have made an album like this one before - apparently "Pig Lib" was pretty dark, but I've never heard it. Pitchfork gave this one a 6.8, but you know, they gave "Zaireeka" a 0.0 so there is no trusting those shifty indie fussbudgets. A friend of mine suggested that they ripped on "Trash" 'cause they hold Pavement to such a high standard, but fuck that - I love Pavement more than life itself and "Trash" gets me goin'. I guess they just want Malkmus to sound goofy and unpredictable, and an album as confident as this one gets their goat. Better theory: they're a bunch of assholes.

So yeah, check it out! I didn't like it at first, but I am a fool of a took. Now I listen to it like every day. But enough of my yakkin' - slip the CD in your stereo, turn those speakers up and get your groove on with the best damn jam record of 2008.

Oh, and if you think smoking weed will make this album better, you're probably an asshole.


Adam said...

I agree with you that the album is a grower... I didn't experience anything quite as drastic as you did, but it does warrant and get better with repeated listenings.

It's certainly a fine album... I don't love every song on it, but there's nothing on it I don't like. My favorite is still the song that got me heavily anticipating the album in the first place, "Baltimore." Two perfect halves, a mid-tempo waltz and a totally badass rock jam melded together perfectly. Great track.

I do know what you mean by hearing something one time and hearing something completely different the next. Hell, it's happening to me now. New Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, "Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!" did not impress me first time. I'm listening to it again now, though and loving it... and I still haven't gotten to two of my favorite songs on the album!

Taught me a lesson... never listen to entire albums on myspace. Ruins the experience BIG TIME.

kayak said...

thank you for writing this