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[whitespace] Stephen Malkmus
Trojan Curfew: Clarity of meaning is not a virtue that troubles songwriter Stephen Malkmus.

Malkmus Out of the Middle

Tired of pounding the Pavement, Stephen Malkmus goes for a solo walk

By Gina Arnold

IT IS THE MOST common occurrence in the world of rock--more common, even, than rock stars who marry models or wind up kicking drugs. A band splits up, and within a few months, its lead singer or songwriter releases a solo album.

The Beatles all did it, as did members of the Who, Led Zeppelin, Simon and Garfunkel, Journey, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Eagles, the Police and Pink Floyd. More recently, we have seen the solo efforts of Peter Murphy (Bauhaus), Morrissey (the Smiths), Joe Strummer (the Clash), Bob Mould, Paul Westerberg, Frank Black, Alex Chilton, Natalie Merchant, various Spice Girls, News Kids, Sex Pistols and Duran Duran.

Only rarely does a band guy get bigger than the band he came from, however. Peter Frampton--whose mildly popular '60s outfit, Humble Pie, was dwarfed by his high-profile '70s solo act--is one example. So is Rod Stewart, who emerged from the Faces, and Ricky Martin and Mark Anthony of Menudo.

Still, the transition is unusual. More often, solo acts are a pale shadow of the bands they began with, thus proving that "the band" as an entity exerts much more influence on the sum of its parts than its members would probably like to believe.

That is not necessarily the case with Stephen Malkmus, but it isn't exactly the contrary, either. Malkmus, who has just released a solo LP wittily titled Stephen Malkmus (Matador), is the former co-head of Pavement, one of the premiere indie-rock acts of the '90s and the only band in recent memory to come straight outta Stockton.

With the help of his longtime cohort Scott Kannberg and three other newer members, Malkmus and Pavement spent the '90s reshaping college rock, accidentally remaking it into their own image. Even today, when guitar-based indie rock is on the wane, three-quarters of the bands in modern rock--from Blur to Vertical Horizon--sound as if they were slavishly devoted to their Pavement records.

Pavement's sound wasn't all that radical--a mix of old-fashioned Velvet Undergroundisms and newfangled lifts from the English band the Fall--but something about their extremely imagistic lyrics and laconic spoken-sung drawl really struck a chord with sensitive young white-band boys the world over.

FOR YEARS, Pavement was the king of the slacker elite, as well as the direct successor to a certain branch of eccentric California rock bands, namely, the Grateful Dead and Camper van Beethoven. Probably the most influential thing about Pavement was its attitude--gentle but smart; half lazy, half ironic--which has permeated the indie-rock zeitgeist ever since.

In retrospect, it looks like Malkmus was the fount of the attitude, while Kannberg was responsible for the experimental aspects of Pavement's sound. That means that Stephen Malkmus has kept hold of the more accessible elements. It is a tuneful, wry and at times irresistible little effort--and yet not nearly so fascinating as Pavement's two masterpieces, Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. (I will kindly draw a veil over the band's indifferent last effort, Terror Twilight.)

As with Pavement's work, there is something occasionally quite beautiful about Malkmus' musical ethos, which at its best is highly reminiscent of the awesome band Television. And yet I can't escape the feeling that Stephen Malkmus sounds like hippie music. Maybe he's taken to smoking pot. Anyway, he certainly seems to be moving out of the world of Sonic Youth-influenced hip bohemia and into a bit more mundane place.

Of course, sometimes it is hard to judge hometown bands, because one's perspective is much too narrow. A few years ago, while passing through London, I noticed that Pavement was playing the Astoria in Camden Town. I rushed right over, only to discover that the gig was sold out. Happily, I scored scalps at the pub next door, and in the course of conversing with my benefactors, I felt as though I gained some insight into the band's appeal.

To me, Pavement was just an obscure Stockton phenomenon--a good phenomenon, but not a particularly glamorous one. But to those English college kids who thronged that gig, Pavement was exotic, shimmering with the romantic aura of Californian-ness and exuding an air of total privilege. Onstage, the band's haphazard carelessness combined with its really rather beautiful private artistic vision in a way that spoke deeply of lives entirely untouched by travail.

Indeed, Pavement and its ilk are the exact, literal opposite of the blues, of rap and even of heavy metal, in that their music speaks not of emotional, physical or economic distress but of the opposite feeling: contentment.

Perhaps that is why Malkmus' music now reminds me of the Grateful Dead. His lyrics are oblique, impersonal and utterly detached. I don't think he writes songs about Stephen Malkmus. Although this reticence is, in a way, a welcome change from the me-obsessed songwriting of most people, it's also a little disconcerting.

A CASE IN POINT is the opening number, "Black Book," with its spooky chorus: "The black book that you took was permanently diversified." It seems to be a song about a shyster, but as with many Pavement songs, it's hard to tell. Melody abounds, but meaning is at best obscure.

But all this is neither here nor there. A simple review of Malkmus' first solo record is as follows: If you like Pavement, you'll like this. Malkmus' voice, which he sometimes uses in falsetto, when he sounds a lot like Ian Hunter, and opaque, goofy lyrics are already a comfortingly familiar entity, while the music, built up on midtempo melodies and choppy guitar riffs, sure doesn't suffer from the fact that it is better produced: lusher and slightly more orchestrated than earlier work (there's an absolute ton of background vocals, which sound great).

Personally, my favorite songs are the less oblique ones, like "Jennifer and the Ess-Dog," which tells a simple story about a doomed romance between a teenaged college coed and a 31-year-old singer in a '60s cover band, who eventually find out they have nothing in common when their taste in music changes, and "the distance between their youths" begins to show.

(The song ends, incidentally, with one of Malkmus' more heartfelt statements: "Jenny pledged Kappa, and she started prelaw ... and off came those awful toe rings," leading one to believe that, whatever the band sounds like, he himself is no Grateful Dead fan.)

"Jennifer" is a good one, but the other songs are equally pleasurable, thanks to their sticky tunes and Malkmus' unique take on things in general. "Jo Jo's Jacket," for instance, focuses mostly on Yul Brynner--a typically impersonal subject for Malkmus to tackle.

Similarly, "The Hook" offers a wacky narrative closer to a fairy tale than a pop song, despite its slow and twisted guitar solos. "At age 19, I was kidnapped by Turkish pirates/Mediterranean thugs," Malkmus drawls. "After some torture, they considered me their mascot/a Cypriotic good luck."

These and other cryptic songs--like "Trojan Curfew" and "Pink India"--are entertaining, but one is certainly not about to discern what's really on Malkmus' mind. And the songs bear more than a passing resemblance to the "Casey Jones" school of narrative, which may be why, although I admire this record, it doesn't enchant me the way that Pavement did.

Because as an entity the band was more of a part of a social movement, Pavement escaped the taint of hippiedom that faintly colors Malkmus music--although I suppose upon reflection, Pavement wasn't as far from Grateful Deadism as I, for one, would have liked to believe at the time.

Now, Malkmus is still no John Popper, but one can't help but think that the HORDE Festival is well within his sights. Bear that in mind when you buy this record, and you won't be disappointed.

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From the February 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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