Brighten the Corners 

Stephen Malkmus on drummer Janet Weiss, his parents’ record collection and being “the Pavement dude”

Like a lot of great pop music, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks’ new Real Emotional Trash sounds slightly uncomfortable in its skin.

Like a lot of great pop music, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks’ new Real Emotional Trash sounds slightly uncomfortable in its skin. The record’s compact song-craft gives way to extended instrumental sections that amplify Malkmus’ wistful lyricism and sharp feel for middle-class frustrations. Real Emotional Trash might be the best work by the former Pavement singer and guitarist since his debut, 2001’s Stephen Malkmus, if not Pavement’s 1999 swan song, Terror Twilight. Malkmus remains incorrigibly blithe, but his formal acuity ensures that his music contains the sort of tension you could call creative.

Now 41, Malkmus has assembled a version of his band, The Jicks, that might include the most accomplished musicians he’s ever played with. The sometimes gawky groove of Pavement tunes such as Wowee Zowee’s “Grave Architecture” is gone. Drummer Janet Weiss—who has done memorable work with Sleater-Kinney and The Go-Betweens—fleshes out Malkmus’ oblique narratives. Listening to Trash’s opener, “Dragonfly Pie,” Weiss could be mistaken for, say, jazz drummer Elvin Jones—she’s that tactful and powerful.

“She’ll just say she’s into Keith Moon or [Jimi Hendrix drummer] Mitch Mitchell or whatever, but she just plays that way,” Malkmus says. “She does like those jazzier rock drummers. She’s never not trying, she’s never not, like, committed to playing. She’s a professional, I guess, but also enthusiastic. So far, it’s been really fun to be in a band with her.”

The other Jicks are just as accomplished, with Joanna Bolme’s bass rocking the sometimes-odd time signatures and guitarist and keyboardist Mike Clark providing just the right touch of goofy synth or piano. Still, Malkmus’ guitar playing remains Trash’s moral center, just as it was on Pavement’s “Rattled by the Rush.”

“Growing up, I liked playin’ sports, and liked soccer and basketball, but I gravitated to the Pied Piper when I got a guitar when I was young,” Malkmus says of his youth in Stockton, Calif. “Seein’ those hardcore bands who came to my town, that’s how I defined myself. With punk, I realized the rudimentary kind of things you could do with a few barre chords. Later I learned a lot from Sonic Youth and [Scottish guitarist] Bert Jansch.”

“Dragonfly Pie” begins with Weiss swinging a time signature that oscillates from 11/8 to 12/8. Guitars buzz away from the beat. “Dragonfly wants a piece of pie / But he is so strung out / Check me out tonight because I want to go home,” Malkmus sings. It’s the latest in his series of songs about the perils of self-invention, and ends cold. As an example of group dynamics, it suggests Fairport Convention or Richard Thompson with an ear cocked to the banalities of American suburbia.

“I realize more and more that the melodies I get, they basically come from my parents’ record collection,” Malkmus says. “They had about seven records—Gordon Lightfoot, Elton John’s Greatest Hits, The Carpenters, Paul McCartney, Captain & Tennille, Carole King, Jim Croce. It’s great when it’s grafted over, like, acid-rock of your choice. The Stones were more directly ripping off old blues. At least I was taking from millionaires, you know.”

Trash incorporates elements of English folk-rock on the title track, which employs an electric guitar riff that gives the illusion of being out of meter. It wouldn’t be out of place on a Fairport Convention record or Richard & Linda Thompson’s Hokey Pokey.

“That kind of ensemble playing of those people is very inspiring,” Malkmus says. “Yeah, Thompson’s a guitar hero, but it’s not like an over-the-top Clapton kind of wankathon. It’s melodic and within the music. Those groups were really influenced by Buffalo Springfield and Moby Grape—great, great bands.”

Certainly, Malkmus plays some very tasty guitar on Trash, but it’s not a jam-band record by any stretch. “Baltimore” features twin-guitar lines played in thirds, while the slide guitar that decorates “Hopscotch Willie” evokes George Harrison’s 1977 single “Crackerbox Palace.” The title track lopes into a middle section that’s as airy as The Allman Brothers, back when Duane Allman and Dickey Betts traded hot licks.

“We grafted some jams on the end of songs,” Malkmus remembers. “I doubled over the guitars a bit. A lot of the lines were just made up in the rough mix and then I kinda tightened them up a bit right after we did ’em, doubled them or made them a little more interesting. Like ‘Elmo Delmo’ and ‘Real Emotional Trash,’ that was sorta just rehearsal-room shenanigans, you know.”

For all its discursive tendencies, Trash is a focused and even concise collection. At 3:04, “We Can’t Help You” is an elegant, crepuscular song that recalls the underrated Terror Twilight. “There’s no common goal / There’s no moral action,” Malkmus sings. “There’s the modern age / From which to run away.” With a lovely organ part and backing vocals that go, “La, la la la la,” it’s as casually lyrical as pop gets.

Recorded at SnowGhost studio in Whitefish, Mont. (vocals were done at Wilco’s Chicago studio), Trash expertly catches the band’s sound, and Malkmus has rarely sung more effectively. Nick Vernhes, who worked on Silver Jews’ American Water (to which Malkmus contributed), mixed the record. It might not be as visionary as Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain or the encyclopedic Wowee Zowee, but Trash ought to dispel the rumors of a Pavement reunion, at least for a little while.

After all, Malkmus is older now, and the indie scene that Pavement helped define has changed as well. “We’ve seen it through the years, starting with Nirvana and on through Arcade Fire and Spoon,” Malkmus says. “Those bands are indie or whatever, and they started with the same impetus I did. But obviously much bigger.”

He’s still a super-fan (“Don Williams, I like him, and Tony Joe White, he’s the real deal,” Malkmus says), and he seems to have put the past into suitable perspective. “We don’t do [Pavement songs] anymore,” he says. “I’m there in spirit. I’m still the Pavement dude if they want me to be.”

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