If the Flaming Lips marked the point at which punk rockers started taking acid, Pavement signaled when they cleaned up their act, finished their MFAs in creative writing, and then started a band. Most of the Pavement canon is comprised of stunning and hilariously poignant nonsense of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” variety, courtesy of lead singer and slacker rock icon Stephen Malkmus. After Pavement’s implosion, Malkmus blended his impish creativity with some actual insights and, thus dropped a few of his finest songs, including the indie-rock love ballad “Jenny & the Ess-Dog,” the puzzling elegy “Church on White,” the wistful “Ramp of Death,” and optimistic “Us.” Most of what’s written about Malkmus’s work with the Jicks concerns his embracing of psychedelia and jamming, but these songs, as well as many of the songs on Real Emotional Trash (which, unlike the Pavement’s verbal conundrums, are actually about stuff), may be a more compelling development in his songwriting.
“Cold Son” displays one of Malkmus’s loveliest melodies in years, and considering the lyrics are (at least partially) about oysters and he’s playing the kind of vintage synthesizer that never would have made it onto a Pavement record, it might well be the best synthesis of his post-Pavement career. Matador’s press release says “We Can’t Help You” sounds like the Band’s “The Weight,” and so it does. The song is concerned with both physical and emotional weariness but Malkmus is far more direct than Robbie Robertson: After he lists a series of negative assertions (“There’s no moral action,” “There’s no modern age,” “There’s no grace in love,” etc.), Jicks member Joanna Bolme injects a sense of hope with a near-perfect little aria of background vocals. Malkmus has always struck me as being a bit uncomfortable with his own pop-music genius—perhaps that’s what all the Smashing Pumpkins-baiting, concert-sabotaging, non sequitur-spewing weirdness was about—so this homage to exhaustion and disappointment strikes me as especially heavenly.
Pavement fans are generally split on the issue of the band’s experimentation—we all like both Crooked Rain Crooked Rain and Wowee Zowee, but nobody likes them both equally—and the Jicks’ emphasis on jamming is a deal breaker for a lot of Pavement aficionados. If I consider “Cold Son” and “We Can’t Help You” the album’s strongest songs, it’s because I’m not as moved by 10-minute long Groundhogs-style jam sessions as I am by more lyrics-driven numbers. What’s clear, though, is that the Jicks’ chops are superb. Not every song is great, but most are at least good, and all are compellingly played. There is no denying that the Jicks are a far tighter act than Pavement ever was and adding former Sleater-Kinney member Janet Weiss on drums has only elevated their potential for rock supremacy. Weiss is the best drummer alive in rock n’ roll—indie or otherwise—and I’d say it to Lars Ulhrich’s face while blowing raspberries. Malkmus’s own guitar work seems much improved as well, and he does integrate the jams into the songs’ compositions better than, say, Les Claypool might.
The real strength of Real Emotional Trash, however, is the strength of every Malkmus project: He’s an indefatigably charming frontman. It’s tough to stay mad at a slacker, so when Malkmus opens the record with the caveat, “Of all my stoned digressions/Some have mutated into the truth/Not a spoof,” he admits that some of these musical detours pan out better than others. The joy of listening to Malkmus’ songs has always been the involvement the listener takes in separating the “truth” from the “spoof” (much like with other oddball geniuses like Robyn Hitchcock or Tom Waits). There’s plenty of both here, but more importantly, there’s enough interplay between the two to keep things interesting and delightful.