Face The Truth
I remember back in the day, the biggest fear you had for your favorite lil rock band was that they would sell out. All those c-90's you laboriously collaged ironic covers for, now rendered ridiculous by your hero's inevitable hubris. This phenomenon was one with nebulous parameters, the truly orthodox of music fan would declare one a sell-out once their first album had appeared in a store, marking them as a part of the machine. I didn't share this extremist view, but I will admit to having my line drawn on many a band when the little label logo went from some scrappy little hieroglyphic of cool to one of corporate mediocrity. Then the inevitable happens, that the band breaks up, leaving you yet again the child of divorce, spending your appointed weekends at the zoo with the lead singer on his (shudder) solo career. The solo artist has a lot in common with the weekend dad, that embarrassing struggle to "find himself" that need to do all those things he wasn't allowed to do back when you mother was around. Often, it turns out your mother's reign on his behaviour was well-founded and sorely missed by all observers.
The first couple solo albums mirror the relationship of the divorced dad. The first one is flashy, looks cool, sounds like a hoot, but once you hang around for a while, you find it was mostly reactionary and lacking substance. It fizzles, and the second one is just a rebound off her and your mom, and no fun for anyone. Dad takes some time off and by the third time around, he finds one that works. Its not the same as when he and your mother were together, but that obviously had its own problems. But its good, and it's nice to have your new-improved Dad around again.
This cycle of life has been observed in many an artist emerging from a number of legendary band. The first couple Frank Black albums, despite praise from many a friend wanting to hold onto the dream, never really grabbed onto me, but the stuff with the Catholics is solid gold in my book. Same with Stephen Malkmus. Pavement was nearly untouchable through their run. Even when Brighten The Corners came out with that song that mentions Geddy Lee, and the cracks in the foundation were starting to show, they were unbeatable. Then Stephen's solo career happens and much as I tried to support it, it never really got me, until this, his third, Face the Truth.
He sounds fresh and brash, like the old Stephen we fell in love with years ago, but he's found a way to dovetail the disjointedness that made Slanted and Enchanted the definitive album of its decade with the guitar rock he's been exploring ever since the last Pavement issuance, the overlooked Terror Twilight. "Pencil Rot" opens the record with flatulent synths (in a good way) and a disco throb making it maybe the most danceable song he's ever put together. Maybe the only danceable song he's ever put together. The twangy baroque piece "It Kills" would've fit right in on Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, but its the sweet plaintive "Freeze the Saints" that brings his songwriting brilliance into full focus. I'm never quite sure what he's talking about, but he can push an emotion via oblique verbiage like no one else. Following it, "Loud Cloud Crowd" pulls in some strings to make a sweet jaunty ballad about fame and it consequences on the soul.
Fellow divorcee Stevie's have to stick together, so much that Malkmus quotes much of the opening melody for "No More Shoes" from Stevie Nicks' "Stop Draggin My Heart Around" but still manages to make it his, and the best track on the album. "Post Paint Boy," with the clearest lyrics, seems at first as an indictment of the slavering self-important art-boy contingent that continues to be the core of his fanbase, but the line
You're the maker of modern
for the untrained eye
could be applied to Malkmus himself. He has consistently been the one of most accessible impenetrable artists out there, continuing to make things that signify as indie rock, but have their own unique bent to it.
The shout-sing groove "Baby C'Mon" illustrates the goal at the end of the road Modest Mouse continues to trudge. There are plenty of other odd little gems in this crown, like the new wave robot groove of "Kindling For The master" showing how you can get down with your funky self and not having to get all Beck about it. "Mama" is great summer driving song, which I always thought was the best thing about Pavement, so its great to see he's still got it in him. The closer, "Malediction" brings his Magical Mystery Tourism to a close wrapping up a nice psyche pastiche with his trademarked sense of groovy lurch.
This album is so great for many reasons: it eschews some of the awkward sarcasm I found off-putting on the last two albums, and instead embraces his unique sense of how to put together a great melody out of seemingly disparate parts. The album is also short like 43 minutes, like proper albums used to be god-dammit. No filler, no overlong excursions into wank that will have you stretching for the track advance button. And yet, its no nostalgia act, its a fresh new Stephen Malkmus that I hope stays around, because really, with the Next Big Things getting less impressive each time, we need him.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com