Top 40 Over 40.29: 50 Ways to Be Steve Malkmus

When I started writing this series a number of years ago, I didn’t think I would be including Stephen J. Malkmus in the line up. My last year in college I had 7 roommates, several of whom played Slanted & Enchanted like 75 million times. I burned out on Pavement in the process, mostly through no fault of their own. I hadn’t listened to any of his records on my own – as opposed to overhearing them from, yes, later roommates – since. When one roommate’s cat jumped on the turntable as it spun that senior year, I laughed out loud. It was a fitting end to the falling apart of that social network of being a college student. Pavement had a college buddies feel and story to them that contributed to that feeling.

I had been really lucky to see Pavement live on their first tour a few years earlier, when the 7″ EP came out, Slay Tracks, upstairs at the Middle East in Cambridge. It was so good! They didn’t have a bass player yet and I think they had 3 guitarists, I really liked that treble heavy thing for his songwriting. Stephen was wearing tuxedo pants with a red t shirt and saying “Would you wanna be in this band?” in this way that was funny at the time the way it wouldn’t have been if they were as successful then as they became later. That first 7″ was so jammed full of information, it really reminds me of what was good about the indie culture at that time. The density of such a little thing as a 7″ slowed down to 33 rpm to include that precious 14+ minutes of information…. overstuffed with inserts and oblique images and out of focus pictures.

Anyway, I really like his 2020 acoustic album Traditional Techniques. It led me to circle back to listen to all of his solo albums on the Democratic National Committee equivalent within the universe of musical distribution, Apple Music. (I will not speak of the Green Tea Party Rival.)

That deep dive led to the discovery of a second gem, on a tip from my friend Dennis: the 2019 electronic outing Groove Denied. It’s entirely different, not only in arrangement, but also emotional vibe. But it’s equally excellent. I came up with a one liner that suits the occasion of writing this two days before my 50th birthday: his last two albums make a very rare achievement of pulling off two consecutive reinventions after the age of 50 that not only work, but, for me, surpass anything he did when he was younger. An absurd statement for a big Pavement fan, but there it is. It’s like he’s found 50 ways to (leave) be (ing) Steve Malkmus.

Traditional Techniques is based on 12 string acoustic guitar, Groove Denied is based, at least initially, on synths and drum machines. The voice gets less ironic than Pavement/Jicks on Trad Tech, after getting more distant and effaced/altered than Pavement/Jicks on Groove Denied. More than the vocals and/or the person/ae, what I like about both albums is attention to detail. When I was growing up in the ’80’s and listening to new records by 60’s generation artists, I found they often disappointed me because it felt like they had lost touch with the attention to detail that really makes recording studio alchemy happen. It’s a lot of work to pursue that level of sonic weaving. I can easily understand how someone like Bob Dylan or Van Morrison could end up in middle age handing the producing off to someone else, and lose their own fingerprint in the process.

One of the details I like the best on is the snare drum sound on Traditional Techniques, especially on the song Xian Man. I kinda obsess about snare sounds. Usually, I think they suck. They either have too much low end in them, or they have this annoying after ring to them that makes me wanna asks someone to turn the sustain down on a transient designer. I usually think single tom hits have rounder and pleasant decay that tickles my fancy on jazz records where the overall noise level is low enough that you can actually hear the full life span of a drum hit.

That’s why Schizophrenia by Sonic Youth sounded so amazing to me when it came out.

Anyway, this Trad Tech snare has this weird low mid thing where it feels like it someone rolled the top and bottom off to make it hit me in the chest. But it’s not a hit that comes from outside of my body. It feels more like it starts somewhere near my stomach and punches up, above its weight, towards the bottom of my lungs. There’s something kinda steadying but also mildly dislocating about it at the same time. It’s also mixed in a really interesting way that sits slightly below other things while, to my ears, totally dominating the song, even as an awesome electric guitar by Matt Sweeney rages in style above the fray. It kinda reminds me of snare mixing decisions I loved on The Low End Theory.

Then the record goes into what I was so convinced was a Ray Davies ballad that I googled The Greatest Own In Legal History + Kinks – only to find it’s an original not a cover. It doesn’t sound derivative at all though. It’s more like an effortless upholding of the best things about one of the traditions embodied in this album.

Shadowbanned is another favorite and beckons to other traditions of Afghanistan and Pakistan thanks to the rabab contributions of Qais Essar and Eric Zang’s contributions on daf, kaval, and udu. I am not such a big fan of Americana at this point. I get bored with the sounds and am impatient with nostalgia for any period of the history of this settler colony called the United States of America. Blending American and British ’60’s counterculture psychedelic folk / rock with influences from countries that should be on our mind, even as as our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue while being ignored, appeals to me. I have spent a lot of time listening to music from closer parts of the Middle East, especially Iran, over the past ten years, thanks to a mentor whose wife is from Tehran, and have been lucky to see people like Hossein Alizadeh and Rizwan – Muazzam Qawwali live within the past 5 years. I’ve been wondering for awhile why more indie rockers weren’t paying attention to that part of the globe.

For me what made the incorporation of those styles work was the overall feeling of propulsion and cohesion that the ensemble playing has on this album. It sounds weirdly like a band that been on the road for a long time together. The sum effect kinda snowballs without going fast enough to sound like its reach extends its grasp. Some of it reminds me of the Taken By Trees album that was recorded in Pakistan, which I really liked when it came out, but did sound kinda Orientalist to me.

I wouldn’t wanna say that the “Decolonize you” lyric in Signal Western totally rules out that element here, but it does signal a willingness to create tension and insinuate around the issue in ways that make me feel like the author has grown beyond some of the Wes Anderson style witty detached version of whiteness that came off some of his earlier stuff for me. Like, the whimsical colonization suggested by the title Westing By Sextant & Musket for example…

And then I started to listen to Groove Denied and I liked it even better. I read that Malkmus recorded and mixed this himself over a 12 to 13 year period. What jumped out to me here was some of the weird and very intricate panning decision he made in the process, like the guitar on the end of A Bit Wilder. The modulation on the main bass synth track fights with the spacey echo on the high noisy synth at the end while leaving an emptiness of space beneath it that allows that pan shifting guitar to meander like a yak grazing in a green valley.

There are lots of other sounds buried beneath the lead lines that I can only really discern when I turn it up really loud on studio monitors. This intricacy made me picture Malkmus burying his head in the speakers for hours making this. There’s an impression of escaping a musical identity that can entrap even as it assures career continuity due to fulfilled expectations. Particularly with altering and treating his vocal signature, in ways that remind of McCartney II from 1980.

When the guitars and the garage come back on Get Me, there’s a simplicity to the halting guitar-player-drums, and the drenched reverb that hides them, that makes it sound like it’s still an electronic record.

Then the swirling disorientation of Forget Your Place … mmm … contrast in sequencing is too rare a thing.

There’s something brave sounding about this short album. That is not very common over 50. He did it two albums in a row.

One response to “Top 40 Over 40.29: 50 Ways to Be Steve Malkmus”

  1. John, dear man, what an amazing piece of writing –– about music I can barely begin to imagine. Thanks a million for sending it to me. Made my day. Love ya. — E. We’ll talk in a couple of hours, I hope, I trust.


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