Home Read Classic Album Review: Stephen Malkmus | Stephen Malkmus

Classic Album Review: Stephen Malkmus | Stephen Malkmus

Pavement's frontman makes a name for himself with a familiar-sounding solo debut.


This album came out back in 2001. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):


Advance promo EPs for this disc came bearing the title Who the F— is Stephen Malkmus? Well, if you have to ask …

As any twentysomething worth his mp3s will tell you, Malkmus is the singer-songwriter-slacker mastermind of indie-rock titans Pavement. Or, rather, he was. After 1999’s Terror Twilight album — something of a disappointment compared to flawless predecessors such as Slanted and Enchanted or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain — the band went on a much-publicized “hiatus.” From the git-go, Malkmus seemed to make it clear this was no mere vacation. He moved to Portland, settled down with his girlfriend, started a new band and began writing and recording new material. Which brings us to now: A mere 18 months after the last Pavement disc, Malkmus is back with a self-titled debut solo album.

Truth be told, the disc sounds like it could just as easily have been the next Pavement album. And perhaps the best Pavement album in years. All the familiar sounds, styles and strangeness are there — the loose, under-rehearsed jams, the oddball, swooping guitar solos, the reverb and echo-drenched production, the loopy, non-sequitur lyrics. Black Book darkly glides along on one of Malkmus’s trademark, slowly stumbling grooves. Phantasies is a bouncy piece of quirky, curiously deadpan pop sprinkled with ringing vibraphones and silly backup vocals. And Jo Jo’s Jacket could only have sprung from the pen of the man who once asked: “What about the voice of Geddy Lee? How did it get so high?” This time out, the subject is chrome-domed ham Yul Brynner: “I’m not what you think I am / I’m the King of Siam,” sings Malkmus. “I’ve got a bald head / My name is Yul Brynner / And I am a famous movie star … Perhaps you saw me in Westworld / I acted like a robotic cowboy / It was my best role.” Well, I guess we know what Malkmus has been watching lately.

And that’s just the first three songs. The remainder of this 40-minute disc’s 12 tracks continue on in the same vein — some strummy ballads (Church on White and Pink India), some riffy midtempo rockers (Discretion Grove, the first single), a bit of wackier fare (Troubbble, a bubbly pop ditty for toy piano). It’ll all be wonderfully familiar turf for those who have Wowee Zowee and Brighten the Corners in heavy rotation in their CD changer.

Actually, there is one noticeable difference on this album — Malkmus sounds like he’s having fun again. You can almost hear the smirk in his voice on songs like the piracy narrative The Hook: “At age 19 I was kidnapped by Turkish pirates / Mediterranean thugs / After some torture they considered me their mascot … There is no time to pray and there’s no time to beg / It’s off with an arm or it’s off with a leg.” Or there’s the quirky romance Jenny & the Ess-Dog, the tale of a teenage girl dating a middle-aged cover-band musician: “She’s a rich girl, he’s the son of a Coca-Cola middle man / They kiss when they listen to Brothers in Arms / And if there’s something wrong with this, they don’t see the harm / In joining their forces and singing along.” And they say nobody writes love songs anymore.

Listening to Stephen Malkmus the album, it’s easy to see two things: 1) Malkmus apparently deserved far more credit for Pavement’s success than you might have originally thought, and 2) While his old band may be done once and for all, he’s just getting started. A couple of more albums like this and nobody will ever ask ‘Who the f— is Stephen Malkmus?’ again.