Stephen Malkmus doesn't break any new ground with his first solo release, but then he didn't have to. Back in the '90s, when he was fronting Pavement, Malkmus was hailed as an indie-rock legend, his lo-fi arrangements and obtuse, stream-of-conscious lyrics inspiring countless burnouts on college campuses across the nation. That trademark sound remains intact on Stephen Malkmus, only provided by a different supporting cast. After Pavement's breakup--or hiatus, depending on what you choose to believe--Malkmus hooked up with drummer John Moen and bassist Joanna Bolme in his adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, and the new lineup was to carry on the Pavement torch under a new name, The Jicks. That didn't quite work for Malkmus' label, Matador, however; thus his eponymous debut featuring only his "whoa, dude" mug on the cover.
That said: Does it sound like Pavement? Yes. Is it as good as Pavement? Not really, but it's still pretty good. Put it this way: If you're a Pavement fan, you won't be disappointed; if you're not, you probably won't get it. Though the packaging is different, Stephen Malkmus kicks off exactly like any good Pavement record. "Black Book" is an old-fashioned jam with clever lyrical twists and turns such as, "Trout in the brook/You're about to get hooked." And just when "Black Book" peters out, the wacky, jaunty "Phantasies" takes over, complete with a falsetto chorus and female accompaniment. Perhaps unshackled by the compromises of a band, Malkmus experiments with instrumentation more than ever before. A xylophone plinks out the melody on "Phantasies," while piano resonates under Yul Brenner's spoken intro to "Jo Jo's Jacket." Still, the album's first single, "Discretion Grove," is, as you might expect, a classic Pavement ditty with a sugary bridge and a frenzied solo. It's not as though the band was holding him back that much.
Malkmus does, however, show off different aspects of his songwriting and song-playing than he did with Pavement. For one, he handles all of the guitar chores on the album (so well, in fact, you hardly miss Scott Kannberg), and his chops are highlighted on the country-tinged "Trojan Curfew," a Greek history lesson set to slide guitar. Later, Malkmus reveals a serious side on the tender and emotional "Church on White," dedicated to his friend, the late novelist John Bingham. His voice nearly cracks as he sings, "All you ever wanted/Was everything plus everything." It's the touching moment he never really allowed himself before.
But it doesn't last. The solemnity of "Church on White" is offset by the whack "Troubbble," a one-minute-and-37-second throwaway that probably should have been titled "B-side" instead. Malkmus is at his narrative best on "Jenny & the Ess-Dog," a story of star-crossed lovers. "See those rings on her toes, check that Frisbee in his Volvo," he begins, telling you how 18-year-old Jenny and the 31-year-old Ess-Dog had a summer romance until "Jenny pledged Kappa and she started pre-law." Malkmus' cynicism reaches its peak on the album's standout track, "Vague Space." An anti-love song, "Vague Space" lets Malkmus profess such sentiments as, "I'd love to tear you up." Wouldn't we all?
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Ever the smart-ass, Malkmus' stated goal for his solo debut was "to mix the precision of Saab, Stefan Edberg, and Bergman with the laid-back (yet heavy) beats of deepest Trenchtown." Whether he accomplished whatever that means, I suppose only he knows. What he certainly did was satiate the appetite of the legions of Pavement fans. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain it ain't, but it'll do.