Malkmus: Paving Over Pavement

“Jo Jo’s Jacket,” the breezy third cut of Stephen Malkmus’ self-titled solo debut, commences with a recorded excerpt of an interview with the late Yul Brynner. “In a funny way, the shaving of my head has been a liberation from a lot of stupid vanities, really,” the actor intones. “It has simplified everything for me. It has opened a lot of doors maybe.”

Although some have speculated that the song is a commentary on that chrome-domed celebrity of more recent vintage, Moby, I want to believe that Mr. Malkmus includes this as a comment on the dissolution of his band Pavement, for which he wrote songs, sang

and played guitar. A kind of vanity suffused Pavement’s 10-year run. Though the ebullience and wit of Mr. Malkmus’ uncommonly strong songwriting tended to burn through the shoddy production values that marked each of Pavement’s albums, hearing these songs performed live was usually a lost cause. Pavement was a band that took perverse pride in giving criminally indifferent concerts.

Three of the four times I saw the band live, I could not believe how terrible they were. Ostensibly, this was due to the fact that the members of Pavement lived all over the country and couldn’t effectively rehearse as a unit. But I suspect it was really because Pavement’s sophomoric, elitist fans were fetishizing and rewarding the band for sucking live. Pavement concerts essentially became gigantic inside jokes that were indecipherable to those unacquainted with the codes of indie culture.

By the time of 1999’s Terror Twilight , the band’s immensely dreary last record, it seemed that Mr. Malkmus and Co. couldn’t even get it up for the recording studio. A London date on the final Pavement tour found Mr. Malkmus brandishing a pair of handcuffs onstage and saying: “This is what it’s like to be in a band.” A storied trickster like him should have been able to come up with something more original.

So it’s a distinct pleasure to report that Mr. Malkmus has overcome his twilight of terror and regained the spirit that had deserted him. Stephen Malkmus (Matador) is not, as the album’s namesake has suggested, basically another Pavement record. It is an album that swaggers with a confidence and verve that used to be verboten in the field in which Mr. Malkmus was once the standard bearer.

The downside of Pavement’s landmark 1992 album Slanted and Enchanted was that it inspired countless indie bands to adopt a similarly smart-assed slacker attitude toward recording. They, too, thought that they could become indie rock gods by noodling around with their instruments and stringing together a sing-songy collection of obscure references and non sequiturs over the sloppy sound.

They forgot one thing. The “proficiency vs. inspired amateurism” debate may have been useful in the days when Pink Floyd shared the earth with the Sex Pistols, but the triflers ultimately lost. And those bands that never developed a cohesive sound ended up playing footsie with their natural constituency when they should have been attempting to reach new listeners.

For them, Stephen Malkmus should be a bracing wake-up call. Mr. Malkmus has not broken entirely with his old slacker habits, but he takes giant leaps toward something more satisfying, something not wholly in thrall to those enabling fans who just want him to toss off smarty-pants witticisms and loaf musically.

Mr. Malkmus’ band, the Jicks, is more fluid, nimble and versatile than the Pavement of 1999, all the better for Mr. Malkmus to flutter and trill via his often deliciously overdriven guitar solos. (His debt to Tom Verlaine has never been more clear than on the opening track, “Black Book”.) As with all guitar music, your band’s no good if the drummer ain’t cookin’. And Mr. Malkmus’ drummer, John Moen, knows how to swing, something that Pavement’s merely steady beatmaster, Steve West, never quite managed.

The tunes on Stephen Malkmus , like the jaunty “Phantasies” and the almost straight boogie “Discretion Grove,” are so tightly constructed and full of melodic thrills that the aphorisms and riddles he uses as lyrics sound once again playful and not tedious.

What’s even more telling is that Mr. Malkmus doesn’t intentionally obscure the meanings of his songs. He said once that it was easier to come up with goofy, jokey lyrics, since otherwise, meaningful sentiments would become meaningless after having to sing them over and over. But Mr. Malkmus understandably breaks his own rule on “Church on White,” the lovely, waltz-time elegy for his friend Robert Bingham, author of Pure Slaughter Value , who died of a drug overdose in November 1999. As a delicate guitar lattice-work frames the tune, Mr. Malkmus sings, “All you really wanted was everything, plus everything / In truth, I only poured you half a life,” bidding his pal goodbye in a manner that the unsentimental Bingham probably would have appreciated.

Then “The Hook” takes a left turn back into lighthearted territory: Mr. Moen taps out a cowbell-led groove as Mr. Malkmus spins a yarn about a teenager kidnapped by pirates who becomes their mascot, then captain of the galleon. Eventually he dubs himself “Poseidon’s New Son” and thrills at the prospect of meeting Cap’n Hook. Somewhere in there, Mr. Malkmus lets fly a finely sculpted, in-the-pocket solo that only enhances the giddiness of this goofy story.

“The Hook” clearly was influenced by that neglected cinematic marvel, Cabin Boy , while “Jo Jo’s Jacket” posits that Yul Brynner’s finest moment was not The Magnificent Seven or The Ten Commandments but, to wit: “Perhaps you saw me in Westworld / I acted like a robotic cowboy / It was my best role / I cannot deny.”

As fanciful as his subject matter is, it’s an enormous pleasure to hear Mr. Malkmus sit back, pick at his guitar and sing about some topics that don’t require a decoder ring to understand. In the sinuous idyll “Trojan Curfew,” he describes the gods looking down on the Trojan War with the same mixture of affection and jealousy that Ray Davies lavished on Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in “Waterloo Sunset.”

Speaking of sunsets, on Jan. 25, Mr. Malkmus played the first show of his first tour with the Jicks at the Bowery Ballroom, and it was obvious that the indie-rock era of slackness and snobbery had come to a close. After an opening set by a pick-up band of Matador employees and a record dealer that played Stones- and Stooges-influenced rock, Mr. Malkmus hit the stage around 11 p.m.

Looking every bit as dishy as his Hawaiian-sunset-hued visage on the album cover (now that’s the kind of vanity you can use!), Mr. Malkmus and the Jicks ran through their set, which consisted largely of songs from the record and covers of songs by 80’s Portland-area punks the Wipers, Australian hard-rockers Coloured Balls and Brit-folk standard bearers Fairport Convention and Mellow Candle. Though the band was not exactly as together as James Brown and his Famous Flames–Mr. Malkmus was occasionally halting and tentative–the Jicks were a damn sight tighter and certainly more exhilarating than any Pavement show I ever saw. If this is how indie rock grows up and gets its shit together, then long live indie rock.

–Rob Kemp

Lewis & Spark

One refutation of the Ken Burns-ian thesis that the only good jazz musician is a dead one (or else one named Marsalis) has emerged from an unlikely quarter: John Lewis, the pianist and leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet for some 40 years. At 80, Mr. Lewis is at an age when eternal repose and PBS canonization might seem to beckon. He has chosen instead to be reborn, first as a solo pianist on 1999’s Evolution (Atlantic) and now as the improvisational center of a small ensemble on the follow-up, Evolution II (Atlantic). To top it off, the recorded sound on both albums is breathtakingly rich.

Mr. Lewis, it seemed, was a master of the art of self-effacement. Despite a couple of worthy and now mostly out-of-print solo albums, he was best known for his contrapuntal and sometimes overly tidy M.J.Q. compositions that served as showcases for vibist Milt Jackson’s chops. Mr. Jackson’s death a little over a year ago put the well-oiled quartet out of business forever and, in effect, invited Mr. Lewis to apply his understated pianism to a canvas that was all his own. The effect has been remarkable. On “One! of Parker’s Moods,” from the new album, he returns to the piano introduction he devised on the spot for the 1948 Charlie Parker gem “Parker’s Mood” and spins out an entire tune’s worth of variations. A fastidiousness about form–an M.J.Q. trademark–is on display here, but so is a lean bluesiness. Picture a tuxedo-clad Mr. Lewis working a juke joint, a single bead of sweat jumping off a golden cufflink.

In interviews, Mr. Lewis shrugs off any great indebtedness to Count Basie or Thelonious Monk (whose place he took in Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1946). Listeners, however, are free to hear echoes of the way Basie could bring you up short with a single, splanking note, or how Monk could blow your mind with nasty, dissonant minor seconds.

Where Mr. Lewis goes beyond his minimalist brethren is in orchestral sensibility (of course, Basie didn’t need the sensibility–he had the orchestra). On an old M.J.Q. tune, “December, Remember,” he develops a mournful solo for almost three minutes, then the band joins him for a lyrical blues with Howard Alden’s strumming guitar somewhat redolent of Western swing. Mr. Lewis telescopes his long-form, Ellingtonian ambitions onto his small group most astoundingly in a new tune, “Cain and Abel.” He sets up a walking blues (you can hear the implied vocal line so clearly, he might as well be striking syllables as notes) that alternates with abstract, concert-hall passages that finally resolve into a kind of jazz funeral march. Passion, tragedy and exile, all in contrasting sections that flow together without obvious segues: Martha Graham could have written a modern dance piece to go along with it.

Even when Mr. Lewis favors a sauntering pre-Tin Pan Alley sound, his arrangements are so unusual, and his deployment of musicians such as bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Lewis Nash is so sure, that the result is rarely, if ever, cloying. I couldn’t say the same thing about the Modern Jazz Quartet, beloved institution that it was. Let the fortysomethings take note: At 80, Mr. Lewis has slyly composed his way out of the endgame of post-bop virtuosity.

–Joseph Hooper

A High for Low

The great majority of the music made by the Minnesota-based trio Low is soft, spare and simple, and moves at the speed of molasses. The structure of the group’s songs can be obsessively repetitive, hanging on a single basic theme that’s stated, restated and re -restated over several minutes. And whether singing separately or in hushed monastic harmony, the band’s central husband-and-wife team of guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker leaves pauses between their melodic phrases that are acres wide–vast spaces often filled only by the rudimentary throb of Zak Sally’s bass.

Low’s music is the stuff that deep disagreements are made of. Some listeners find an unspeakable beauty and intensity in it; others view it as a healthier alternative to sleeping pills; and a few observers find its labored pace only slightly less excruciating than amputation without anesthetic. Being a skeptical music critic, I’ve frequently suspected that my opinion of the band ought to fall in one of the latter two categories, and when I’ve seen them live or heard their albums in the past, I’ve accordingly prepared myself for an agonizing, or soporific, experience. Instead, I’ve consistently been transfixed by the mesmerizing quality of this unassuming yet somehow overwhelming music. As much as I hate to admit it, I like Low. A lot.

If you’re unfamiliar with the band’s work, their latest album, Things We Lost in the Fire (Kranky), is a splendid introduction. I would humbly suggest that it’s the best record they’ve made in their eight-year career. Not that it’s some great leap forward. Two songs, “Dinosaur Act” and “Whore,” pack a heavier punch than usual with the use of distorted bass and guitar, and two others, “Like A Forest” and “In Metal,” could almost pass for upbeat pop songs (until you listen closely to the ambivalent lyrics). But on the whole, Things We Lost simply offers more of the intimate, quietly dramatic balladeering that Low has made its specialty.

What makes this album better than its predecessors is that Mr. Sparhawk, Ms. Parker and Mr. Sally have reached the point where the delicate interplay between words, music and performance has become second nature to them. At its finest, the result of this artistic maturation is a kind of sound painting. On “Laser Beam,” Ms. Parker–whose voice could never be characterized as happy–adopts a weary tone that makes her sound like the loneliest woman in the world. For the song’s key line, “I need your grace alone,” she stretches the last word to the breaking point, coupled with a nine-note melody that roams disconsolately from the top to the bottom of her vocal range. Grace is nearly forgotten, but being alone is ever present.

“Whitetail,” an ominous dirge driven by a grindingly slow guitar-bass pulse and overlaid with rapid-brushed cymbal that bears no rhythmic relationship to the main beat, builds to a fearsome climax and then, just when explosion seems imminent, dwindles to a whisper. The song’s closing words are “Closer, closer, never closer”: What exactly is it that we’ve gotten so close to here? Love? Transcendence? A big rock moment? Whatever it is, the song’s subdued conclusion suggests that it will permanently remain just beyond our grasp.

A few words should be spared for Low’s producer, the semi-legendary Steve Albini. Although Mr. Albini has talked a lot in interviews about how he aims to capture the sound of a room on tape, the work he’s done with high-profile artists such as Nirvana, P.J. Harvey and Bush is notable for a compressed sludginess that sounds like no room I’ve ever been in. But working with a more restrained group like Low, Mr. Albini’s enhanced-reality approach succeeds . Things We Lost really does sound like a band playing together in a big warm room, with everyone at the perfect volume level. Hints of organ, piano, Mellotron, strings and brass on several tracks add to the depth.

Still, the main focus of Things We Lost is the manner in which beauty and ambiguity co-exist in each song. The stories Mr. Sparhawk and Ms. Parker tell here have even bigger gaps in them than the melodies. “Medicine Magazines” may be about a friend or family member suffering from depression or terminal illness, or both–or maybe not. “Sunflower” refers to a dead body and ransom money, but loses its narrative thread in a haze of non sequiturs. Elsewhere, lines about being “born without a stomach” and “crushing your skull with my warming embrace” can make a listener marvel at how something so pretty can also be so unsettling. Which, one might assume, is the underlying point of this masterful album.

–Mac Randall