This is not my first lap around the oeuvre track. I once attempted to write a post for every Pavement track on a single blog dedicated to the Pavement oeuvre. I’m considering starting this up again, but that’s another project for another day. On this blog, I once wrote three posts discussing the complete catalog of Archers of Loaf. However, today, I intend to take on the oeuvre of one Stephen Malkmus and his ever-faitful Jicks. This is part 1 of a series in which I hope to break down every SM track post-Pavement.
I have no idea what that mess in the beginning: a tribal call of a new era, perhaps. Whatever. This was a clear break from Pavement and a typically lazy stroll of a song for Malkmus to make in the first track of his first venture outside the previously mentioned indie legends. Anyway, the “black book” of which SM is referring seems to be the Bible – literally or metaphorically. By calling the black book “perminently-diversified”, he seems to be addressing the commodified nature of the Bible and possibly the Christian religion in general. Could it be considered a prediction of the hipster Christian megachurch future? Who knows. Either way, it’s a fairly serious song with that familiar, Pavement-esque, lazy hook and feedback flourishes with sloppy layering.
If you lived in Alaska, you would have fantasies about far away, tropical regions as well. Still, the protagonist stays in his winter wonderland where the temperature reaches 99 below and he spends his time fishing through a hole in the ice. Someone – I suspect someone native to the land, maybe an Eskimo – tries to talk his friend out of a move to the tropics. Still, fantasies persist. (Interesting side note is that this song was used for a Sears commercial. I tried to find video proof, but you’ll just have to trust me.)
“Jo Jo’s Jacket”
A track of Yul Brynner talking about the freedom enjoyed from shaving his head opens “Jp Jo’s Jacket” perfectly as Malk goes into a Brynner-inpired soliloquy about his role in Westworld as a robotic cowboy. From there, it gets fairly absurd, including crap house music, a Christmas-y innuendo, and a Dylan quote. It’s a fairly Crooked Rain-era track that made for a good single in true Pavement fashion. The line about being his candy cane hints at a sexual advance, a theme that pops up now and again in SM’s solo/Jicks work now and again. The Dylan quote and the following bit reminds us not to take any of this too seriously. In the end, it’s just a
Pavement Stephen Malkmus song about Yul Brynner.
“Church on White”
“Church…” is the first track that just reminds me of Terror Twilight/Brighten the Corners era Pavement. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, Pavement. Anyway, this song for me is Malk’s memoir. He was the spokesman for a generation (or at least the white, male, educated portion of said generation and not exactly by his choosing) and all we ever wanted from him was that he stayed true to form. Whether he sings “I only poured you half a line/life/lie” doesn’t really matter. He admits to only giving so much whether it was a half-finished lyric, a small piece of himself, or a partial deception. Whatever. He’s given a lot. It’s a marathon and not a spring, but I feel as though I’m digressing…
One of two narrative songs on the album – a totally welcomed aspect of Malkmus’ new direction. As it turns out, the dude can spin some yarn. This particular story is about his adventures as a pirate. No one should over think this one. It’s a pirate tale and not some allegory for his time with Pavement or some commentary on class. He’s kidnapped by some pirates and eventually becomes one of them, to the point that he is their leader. It’s just a fun, fun song.
Discretion happens after hours in an anonymous locale. You sneak around like French freedom fighters in World II, fighting for a sort of freedom not everyone needs to know about, an affair, perhaps?
We don’t find trouble; it finds us. No matter how much we try to avoid it, entropy happens and people are messy. Hell, we can’t even spell “trouble” correctly.
This one feels like another Terror Twilight leftover. Continuing Malk’s interest in history, he tells the story of Mortimer Durand and the line he drew between Pakistan and Afghanistan. I almost wish he had titled the song “The Great Game” as this was the term that described the conflict between Great Britain and Russia fighting for supremacy in central Asia. I don’t know my history well enough to tell you everything, but it’s interesting how the lasting effects of this conflict still remain. Also, the lines “Tension grows in Afghanistan / Carbine bullets could settle the score / I had a crap gin tonic it wounded me / Send my way off on one” are pretty great. It causes me to wonder about Durand’s experience and whether or not he succumbed to the pressure accumulating in the region. (Also, is it “carbine bullets” or “car-Bible-ets”? I always sing it as the latter which is way more interesting and may not be that far off.)
An expertly described scene of a locale where Trojans once prevailed… Now, it’s a hotspot for vacationing Swedes and the like. At moments I’m sure it retains the majesty it once held when Troy was on top at certain times of the day. Once again, Malkmus is able to write a fairly straightforward song that simply describes a nice moment in time and the centuries of history that can overtake you when standing on historic ground.
Ever been in a relationship where you kinda get off by calling the whole thing…er…off? Well, I haven’t. I imagine this as one of those love-hate relationships where making up after regular fights is more fulfilling than being nice to one another. Some relationships need to blow up just to find the spark. They exist in a vague space where relationships rarely flourish except when the threat of ending it is always there.
“Jenny and the Ess-Dog”
The second narrative track of the record is a classic. “Jenny and the Ess-Dog” is your basic May-December romance that fizzles once the younger member of the couple out-grows her companion. In this case, Jenny goes off to college, does well, joins a sorority, and does what we’re supposed to do. Her boyfriend the Ess-Dog is an old hippy-type. His life isn’t going anywhere and Jenny’s move to college makes the distance between them and their years too much to overcome.
Yet another post-Terror track with that same lazy easiness which has allowed the final Pavement record to fair well over time. Something about this song reminds me about “Ann Don’t Cry“- maybe the chorus? I don’t know what the song is about. It could be about a slow road trip to Vegas for an impromptu wedding that takes a week to happen. There’s only one appealing person in a room of old people, possibly at a wedding or wake. A prom scene with full-on 80’s feathered hair… It doesn’t matter. It’s a sleepy way to end Stephen Malkmus’ first post-Pavement endeavor.
“Water and a Seat”
Pig Lib is the beginning of Malkmus and his Jicks playing around with some bluesy yet edgy jamband ish. From the beginning riffs, you get the sense that Malkmus doesn’t care and has no interest in making this Pavement, Part Deux. And what better way to invite this new era than with a song inviting the madness the way “Water and a Seat” does? The listener is now prepared for what’s about to occur…
“Ramp of Death”
Jazzy slacker rock takes over with what seems to be a pleasant pop moment in the form of a chorus… Just as SM has embraced this new leap into a new chapter in his career, he’s encouraging his listeners to do the same. I was in my mid- or upper-20’s when Pig Lib came out and it was time to move forward into adulthood. I took this record with me.
“(Do Not Feed the) Oyster”
Despite Pig‘s departure from his Pavement past – now a full album removed – this song does the mellow jazz docents right, mixing this newfound infatuation with blues-inspired jammy-ness and art house aesthetic. Lyrically, it’s a mess trying to cling to a theme that only loosely holds the song together. Still, that’s how we like it. What does it mean to not feed the oysters? Fuck if I know. It’s just a nice song to jam to. Amirite? Somehow it all concludes with a mail-order bride. Why not?
“Vanessa from Queens”
Bob Packwood was a Republican Senator from Oregon who was eventually forced out thanks to some sexual harassment and assault. Bob was dirty old man which explains so much about this track. One of the best lines ever has to be “Bob Packwood wants to suck your toes.”
“Sheets” (Sorry, there’s no Youtube video for this one for some reason.)
Sexy Stephen Malkmus makes another appearance in “Sheets” and the instrumentation wreaks of two people going at it over and over again. For me, the song is about getting into a club or party, just getting through the coolness gates or whatever.
It is rumored that this song is about Steve Kannberg. I’ll go with that. Spiral Stairs – like most Pavement members – seemed to not be nearly as serious as Malkmus. SM tried to push that band as far as he could and they just dragged their feet. The band was great for so many reasons, but as I’ve written over and over, it always felt as if Malk had outgrown the band. Sure, in this context, the song comes off as cold, but that’s just how it’s played out.
And now for a complete departure in the form of some New Wave, something you won’t see coming at this point in the catalog. I feel as if this song is about Miami Vice for no other reason than that’s just what it sounds like: ocean-lined highways, neon suits, fast livin’, cocaine, etc. You know, Miami Vice things.
“Witch Mountain Bridge”
I do love the Led Zeppelin-like, medievalist narrative. I get the sense that Malkmus is playing a bit with genre and aesthetic, much like the rest of the album. What really brings the Game of Thrones storytelling together is the extended jam at the end. I catch a lot of flack for liking Malkmus’ music while simultaneously hating Phish and their ilk, but songs like this hit just the right notes – all of them.
Want to demonstrate what Stephen Malkmus can do lyrically and vocally, point your friends to this track. Not only is it another narrative – a positive development over SM’s solo career – but this track actually captures some fantastic word play. First, there’s the love triangle (or is it a square) where one unrequited love is followed by another. The gem in the first verse is “he couldn’t commit to the mental jujitsu of switchin his hitting / from ladies to men.” The next verse finds two of the left-out lovers commiserating over dinner, wrapped up nicely with another great line – full of heart and humor: “they want to stay confined within the fortress of this day / stick that in your craw…check it out…” Yeah, he snuck in “crotch.” It’s one of the sweetest song in all of Malkmus’ oeuvre from Pavement on.
“1% of One”
The blues fest continues… I read somewhere that this song is about the Dutchman Remko Schouten, the sound engineer for Pavement. Much like his debut, it’s pretty straightforward: “Blind son man from Netherlands, he knew not what bands he mixed / They sounded a bit like a Zephyr and a bit like the Jicks.”
The Grateful Dead thing that is hinted at throughout this record comes to fruition in the final song, “Us.” At moments, it reminds me a ton of Loose Fur, the side project featuring Wilco members Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche, and Wilco collaborator Jim O’Rourke. It’s almost the Jicks theme song. I can’t remember how many of this incarnation stayed on, but it felt like they were writing their tour bio in the form of a jam. Lyrics are written to fit the space between extended jams that groove on and on. The song only clocks in at just over four minutes, but you kinda want them to play it out and see where it goes.
This is the poppier counter to “Dark Wave” which paints a picture of high school days in the early 80’s. This song is dedicated to 80’s jangly guitars and John Hughes movies. Also, this was cute.
“Fractions & Feelings”
This song with the previous one and maybe “Dark Wave” are a bit of an 80’s trilogy. I can only imagine SM was studying his old yearbooks and zines while writing these songs. This is the weakest of the bunch, but it’s fun. (Later, “Lariat” joins the group but with much more sophistication in its message.)
And back to the Grateful Dead. I deny the connection all the time to my wife, but it’s there – literally and between the lines. Aesthetically, I can’t think of another song like this in the catalog. There are the ever-Malkmus lyrical twists, but it has a danceable groove that’s almost conventional pop. Almost.
“The Poet and the Witch” (live)
I only know of a live recording of this track. It hints at the direction Malkmus was heading, but I’ll save that discussion for the next post. Either way, this song is closely related to “Witch Mountain Bridge” in its attempt to connect with a flower child past with Led Zeppelin theatrics, or something. It’s fun and seems like a fun song to hear live.
“Shake It Around” (live)
This is a real rocker and I’m not sure it’s about much of anything aside from rocking. Our mundane lives need shaking now and again and tracks like this do the trick.
That’s the first installment in the series. I hope to get the other albums covered in coming weeks. It’s already been tough to get blog posts out there these days. It’s way past my bedtime and I have…well, actually, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks tomorrow night (or is that now tonight?). Anyway, you can catch some of my thoughts as shared by an actual journalist here. In the meantime, stay tuned for the rest of the series.
Happy Labor Day, y’all! I wanted to make a labor-themed list this week, but I wasn’t feeling all that creative. Labor Day and unions will get their due in the list, but there are other things to cover…
1. SM on Fallon
I originally wanted to share this show SM & the Jicks put on at San Francisco’s Amoeba Records, but this two-song set on Fallon was too much to resist. The image of all those kids on stage peeing themselves over the awesomeness in front of them can’t escape my mind. All the live videos of material from this album further confirms that Mirror Traffic is the best I’ve heard this year and I doubt that will change any time soon. (I would have embedded the videos here, but NBC’s and Photobucket’s embedding doesn’t seem to cooperate with WordPress.)
2. Founders 2010 Nemesis
Recently, both Draft Magazine and The Hopry suggested that last year’s Nemesis is ready to come out of the cellar. They were right. Gone is the hoppiness and bite. Present is a smooth, luscious black barley wine, aged to near-perfection. I still have two left that will wit for at least another 6-12 months. It should be interesting to see how this beer matures even more.
I’ve had an influx of records arriving at my house lately (and still more to come). It seems an order of three albums was lost somewhere and finally arrived this past week. I’ve barely had time to listen to Let’s Wrestle, Boat, and Joan of Arc. The Joan of Arc is pretty wicked, though. Also, I ordered a couple records I missed along the way: Eleanor Friedberger’s new solo effort and Wye Oak’s latest. On top of that, I’ve been listening to a streaming Wild Flag all week. So, there’s music about which to write once I find a moment.
There’s always a constant flow of beer in my life. I recently tried and thoroughly enjoyed Dogfish Head’s Squall, which is a bottle-conditioned version of their 90 Minute IPA. This was the same beer without the bite, quite enjoyable. Also, over the weekend, I had the Schlafly raspberry coffee stout. Meh. Fruit in stouts doesn’t often work for me. In this case, the raspberry overpowered everything. Luckily, I have another to age to see if the raspberry mellows.
5. Ohio State is 1-0.
This is all that matters. The Buckeyes had a long, long off-season as wins were vacated, players suspended, coaches resigned, etc. Now, they’ve finally played a game. It was a 42-0 win over outmatched Akron, but it was a win nonetheless. First-time head coach Luke Fickell starts off undefeated. The defense pitches a shutout (which is a big deal no matter who you’re playing). The quarterbacks looked good. There was a new-found killer instinct lacking in previous teams. They even left at least 10 points on the field, fumbling once inside the 5 and missing a make-able field goal. Now, they welcome a slightly tougher – but still a MAC-rificial lamb – test in Toledo. Hopefully, a week from now, I’m writing that they’re 2-0 and ready for Miami.
Stephen Malkmus will never live up to what he did in the nineties. Of course, he shouldn’t have to. He said enough with the Pavement output that he has nothing left to prove, for me anyway. What’s most amazing about that material is that Pavement was actually not that great of a band. Sure the whole was greater than the sum of the parts and they had a certain chemistry, but the band was not technically that talented. Well, aside from Malk’s songwriting. Eventually, his overall musicianship surpassed those of his band mates, the band was unceremoniously dumped, and the Jicks were born.
The Jicks have been for the most part hired guns. Granted, they’re hired to help write and record and really be a part of the band, but they’re often still involved with their own projects. Also, in contrast to the ambiguity that was Pavement’s structure in the early days, there is no doubt from the beginning whose band this is. Still, SM finally has a group of musicians that can match his vision. Long gone are the days of Malk taking over the drum kit to show Westy how his part should be played. The parts of the Jicks make a pretty formidable band of professional musicians who can make whatever is going on in Stephen Malkmus’ brain a reality.
What also has changed is the necessity for Malk to fill holes all on his own. With Pavement (and to some extent early on in the Jicks era), SM would deliver his lyrics with a jazz musician’s impulsive stroke. He would bend and contort his words to fill space and make an otherwise forgettable sequence memorable. One has to assume that he also dumbed down song structures to better match the band’s capabilities. This second point is hard to detect, but after watching Malk’s songcraft development over the last few Jicks albums, it’s hard to make an argument that Pavement was a better band of musicians.
Never had I fully realized how much further ahead Malkmus was from his band mates in Pavement until I saw them reunite last summer. During guitar solos, bridges, and moments of improvisation, Malk was lazily tearing away at his guitar, almost playing around. His playing was effortless and extremely tight. The gap between Stephen Mallmus and Pavement had grown over the decade. I always thought the gap was there, but it was way more apparent last summer.
I don’t mean to pick on Pavement. They are still my favorite band who produced my favorite records and some of the more memorable moments I’ve seen on a live stage. They hold a special place in my heart and will never be replaced. Of course, I sometimes wonder how much of that was Stephen Malkmus and how much was the entire band. I suspect a little bit of both. I also think it worked really well for a decade and went as far as it was meant to go before it ended.
In the meantime, Stephen Malkmus continued to grow past Pavement. His self-titled debut was just the next record. However, he was now writing for people who would be able to play what he wrote. The record is loaded with hits, but it never truly received the attention it deserved commercially. The break from Pavement continued as Malk became more comfortable with his somewhat regular/irregular lineup and produced Pig Lib, an album that nearly sounded identical to an SM & the Jicks live show rather than a studio album consisting of mostly Stephen Malkmus and the jicks (lower-case j).
Face the Truth sounded like the next Pavement album, building off Terror Twilight‘s ominous laziness. However, as suggested above, the band was much more capable in carrying out Malk’s song ideas and the album quickly takes you beyond Pavement. Then, Face the Truth explores Malk’s bluesier side as his guitar heroism grew by leaps and bounds. It’s as if the time he spent playing with capable musicians finally allowed him to just play and explore. With Pavement, he often started the songs and the rest of the band received their cues from him. The Jicks are self-sufficient and don’t need the same amount of direction. This has allowed Malk to just play and even sing it straight.
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks finally felt like a realized entity once Real Emotional Trash hit the market. Pseudo-blues and jazz jams from their live show combined with Malk’s lyrical wit made this a highlight in 2008. Songs meandered. Shit got weird, but it felt like this new band was fully realized and ready for something more.*
All of this comes together in the form of the excellently produced, written, and executed Mirror Traffic.
Loopy “Tigers” opens with a sing-along rock edge that hints at the seventies-esque production that continues. The second track, “No One (Is As I Are Be)”, is your lazy Sunday, AM radio piece of gold soundz that even brings the French horn and piano to the party.
“Senator” is your customary third track that doubles as the album’s single. For my money, this is the most complete, best Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks song ever. Malk’s bizarre lyrical content, topical-ish subject matter, and cool delivery is matched by a rather rocking track that hits epic proportions without trying too hard. If it were not for all that blow job business, this would be the late summer’s college dorm , radio hit.
“Brain Gallop” takes things back down a notch with an easy, breezy tone that brings forward more of that subtle seventies production value. In case you hadn’t heard, Beck Hansen produced this album. Channeling the ghosts of John Lennon and Harry Nilsson and whatever rock/pop rockers he’s been listening to, Beck subtly adds nuance that was missing from previous Jicks records. He doesn’t do much. There’s reverb here. Echoes there. More organ over there. It’s a masterful work, really. It’s as if he was there but wasn’t really there.
Side 2 kicks off with “Jumblegloss” which recalls some spacier, janglier moments in the Pavement discography, but just intro’s the second half of the first disc. This cut-off works well to set the table for “Asking Price”, a Pavement-esqe mid-tempo, quiet track that tempts chaos without every really losing structure. Again, the careful playing of the Jicks backs SM’s signature lyrical delivery without him having to fill the holes with bends and turns.
“Stick Figures In Love” is a fun song a la SM’s debut. Plenty of seventies’ jangle and guitar heroism carries the track. It moves and causes toe-tapping one can’t help. Malk’s voice is almost too quiet, but you can make it out, suggesting a near-perfect mix and setting up the moment Malk hollers and echoes the song’s climax. The writing is almost Shins-like, something I’d rarely suspect from a Malkmus-penned song. Additionally, I love the groove coming through Joanna Bolme’s bass. It moves me.
“Spazz” reminds me a ton of earlier Pavement songs that fused punk, jazz, jangle, and the weird. Its herky-jerky movement is only accentuated by Beck’s expert dial-work and the Jicks’ collective musicianship. “Long Hard Book” is the (almost) country track a la “Heaven Is a Truck” or “Father to a Sister of Thought.” “Share The Red” closes the first disc with a steady ballad, Malk-style and lovely and comes to some parental truths and the rare moment of perceived emotion.
“Tune Grief” is the glam rocker to kick off what is a jam-packed side 3. (There is no side 4, just a bizarre etching. I suspect Malk’s kids were messing around with his records.) Malkmus makes a case for himself to play the lead in the sequel to the Velvet Goldmine that should never happen.
“Forever 28” is this record’s “Jenny and the Ess-Dog” without all the Volvos, toe rings, and discarded guitars. The following track “All Over Gently” moves and grooves as only seventies pseudo-blues rock often tried to do while maintaining something more upbeat and relatively poppy. I could totally imagine Malk doing this song on an early episode of The Muppet Show with Gonzo doing something indescribable to his harem of chickens backstage.
“Fall Away” is as soft and pretty a Stephen Malkmus song you’ll find. Even so, it contains a bit of urgency wanting to break out that never quite arrives. “Gorgeous Georgie” closes things out Mirror Traffic with a shaky bit of finality and even a touch of the storytelling that’s become ever-present in Malk songs, post-Pavement. The song does what a good closer should do and just makes the listener want to hear more. So, you remove the record and return side 1 to the turntable.
As I’ve mentioned before, Beck’s fingerprints are all over this record, but you’ll need Vince Masuka to find them. The mixing is expertly done. The production takes nothing from Stephen Malkmus’ aesthetic. If anything, it supplements it well, even pushing it to some modest heights.
As for the Jicks, they are as professional as tight a band as you’ll find. Other than Malk and the already mentioned Bolme, keyboardist Mike Clark and drummer Janet Weiss (now moved on to Wild Flag, FTW!) round up what is a great, great band. Clark took subtlety classes from Beck and augments what would have been excellent songs anyway. Janet Weiss proves once again that she’s one of the best drummers alive. The woman just knows how to treat her skins.
There have been times I’ve been down on Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks. I just wanted them to be another Pavement, but they are obviously not. And after revisiting Malk’s entire discography and spending a lot of time with Mirror Traffic over the last week, I am really getting to like what Malk’s done since 2k started. Now, he’s equaled the number of Pavement records he recorded and doesn’t show signs of stopping. What also won’t stop is his growth and I can’t wait to see how big he grows.
*Somehow, I forgot to write up Real Emotional Trash. I’m not sure how as the title track runs through my head all the time. Still, hat tip to Justin for pointing out my transgression.