An Introduction to Stephen Malkmus

An Introduction To Pavement Month

As the undeniable creative focal point of Pavement, it would seem that Stephen Malkmus’ solo work would draw considerable interest from fans of the group. However, a quick scan of RateYourMusic reveals that Pavement’s least frequently-rated album (Terror Twilight) has nearly three times as many ratings as Malkmus’ most-rated record (his 2001 self-titled debut). Granted, such a downtick was inevitable, but it helps to underscore the fact that many Pavement fans are missing out a great deal of music that they would almost certainly enjoy.

In all fairness, my favorite Malkmus solo album (there are three or four contenders for the title) still doesn’t hold a candle to my least favorite Pavement record (the aforementioned Terror Twilight), but over a now twenty-year-long solo career, Malkmus has maintained an impressively consistent standard of excellence. Working with a mostly-stable lineup of Portland musicians known as The Jicks, Malkmus has added another nine albums to his impeccable five-LP run with Pavement. All the while, the wit and charm that have always defined his songwriting have remained intact.

That’s not to say that Malkmus has maintained a state of artistic stasis. The shorthanded version of his first decade of solo work suggests that he alternated between taut, hook-focused records (Stephen Malkmus, Face the Truth, Mirror Traffic) and albums that were more musically exploratory, or “jammy” (Pig Lib, Real Emotional Trash). While there is some truth to this narrative, even Malkmus’ long-form tracks emphasize his knack for melody, while the pop songs generally display more instrumental dexterity than his work in Pavement.

Following 2014’s relatively lackluster Wig Out at Jagbags, Malkmus took his most extended break from releasing new music to date, reemerging in 2018 with a new album from The Jicks (Sparkle Hard), which was quickly followed by a pair of wildly divergent solo records: 2019’s electronic Groove Denied, and 2020’s baroque folk-inspired Traditional Techniques. Accepting Groove Denied as a playful genre experiment, this trio of records prove that – over thirty years into his career as a musician – Malkmus continues to follow his muse in rewarding directions.

The following article/playlist is intended as an introduction to Stephen Malkmus’ solo work. As a result, some long-time fans may lament some of the choices – particularly my emphasis on the more immediate side of his songwriting spectrum. Admittedly, the playlist suffers a bit, due to the lack of “Fractions & Feelings” (easily a top ten Malkmus solo joint), as the Dark Wave EP is not presently available on Spotify. To the newcomers, enjoy! To the old-timers, let everyone what I missed in the comments.

Stephen Malkmus

“Pencil Rot”

from Face the Truth (2005)

Though he would dive full on into electronic sounds with 2019’s Groove Denied, Stephen Malkmus dabbled with them as far back as his time with Pavement. The opening track to 2005’s Face the Truth, “Pencil Rot” mixes heavily-effected synth sounds with Malkmus’ typical guitar-oriented approach, all to rewarding results. Plus, it gets extra points for introducing us to the sinister villain, Leather McWhip.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

“Solid Silk”

from Sparkle Hard (2018)

2018’s Sparkle Hard was an excellent return to form for Malkmus and his cohorts in The Jicks. An early album highlight, “Solid Silk” creates a lush atmosphere with layers of guitars, strings, and keyboards. Like many of his best tracks, it eschews a chorus, but manages to pack in an impressive number of hooks regardless.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

“(Do Not Feed The) Oyster”

from Pig Lib (2003)

Though Joanna Bolme (bass) and John Moen (drums) had appeared on Stephen Malkmus’ self-titled debut, it was 2003’s Pig Lib where The Jicks (along with guitarist/keyboardist Mike Clark) were given co-billing. Reflecting a more band-oriented approach, Pig Lib found the quartet stretching out songs, both in terms of length and intricate instrumental passages. While fan favorites such as “Witch Mountain Bridge” and “1% of One” are highlights, “(Do Not Feed The) Oyster” balances the group’s instrumental prowess with Malkmus’ song craft.

Stephen Malkmus

“Church On White”

from Stephen Malkmus (2001)

The gorgeous centerpiece of Malkmus’ solo debut, “Church On White” echoes Pavement classics like “Grounded” and “Transport Is Arranged” in its jangly verses and swelling crescendo. Most/all of the songs on this list should appeal to fans of Malkmus’ previous group, but this one in particular is a no-brainer.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

“Tigers”

from Mirror Traffic (2011)

The brisk opener to 2011’s Beck-produced Mirror Traffic, “Tigers” is just about as catchy as the album gets. While the presence of former/future/former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss is less noticeable here than on the jammier tracks from 2008’s Real Emotional Trash, this is an excellent highlight of her time as a member of The Jicks.

Stephen Malkmus

“ACC Kirtan”

from Traditional Techniques (2020)

The opener to 2020’s really enjoyable Traditional Techniques, “ACC Kirtan” establishes the folk-with-psychedelic-flourishes vibe that permeates throughout the album. The addition of Middle Eastern instrumentation (provided by Qais Essar and Eric Zang) contributes greatly to the sonic palette – one that occupies a similar space to the aforementioned Beck’s 1998 classic, Mutations.

Stephen Malkmus & Lee Ranaldo

“Cant’ Leave Her Behind”

from I’m Not There [Soundtrack] (2007)

Malkmus contributed three songs to the soundtrack for Todd Haynes’ unconventional 2007 Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There. While his versions of “Maggie’s Farm” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” were welcome, they were highly deferential to Dylan’s original “thin wild mercury” takes. More rewarding was this sparse interpretation of the unfinished “Can’t Leave Her Behind,” recorded with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

“Hopscotch Willie”

from Real Emotional Trash (2008)

While Janet Weiss’ tenure in The Jicks was relatively brief, her drumming provided a palpable energy, both on stage and on record. For my money, this element is best captured on this track from 2008’s Real Emotional Trash. Though there’s some interesting storytelling going on in “Hopscotch Willie,” the best parts of the song are those that find Weiss’ rolling fills leading the rest of the group through the surging instrumental sections.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

“Lariat”

from Wig Out at Jagbags (2014)

For myself, 2014’s Wig Out at Jagbags is Stephen Malkmus’ least distinguished album, but it’s hardly a dud (something has to rank at the bottom). Among its highlights, “Lariat” is a particular standout. It’s sharp, catchy, and features the album’s most endearing melody. As a “nineties kid” though, I must contend its “the eighties were the best music decade ever” claim. In fact, Malkmus’ previous group has a lot to do with that stance.

Stephen Malkmus

“Freeze the Saints”

from Face the Truth (2005)

The centerpiece to Face the Truth, “Freeze the Saints” exists in the same jangly, mid-tempo realm as much of Stephen Malkmus’ greatest work. Even though its repeated refrain (“Help me languish here”) suggests a sense of melancholy, the cumulative effect of this breezy track is nothing short of warm and amiable.

Stephen Malkmus

“Viktor Borgia”

from Groove Denied (2019)

The most divisive record in his solo catalog, 2019’s Groove Denied found Stephen Malkmus largely abandoning the guitars that had come to define his sound, in favor of synthpop influences that had only existed along the outer edges of his earlier work. The album’s lead single, “Viktor Borgia” drew considerable influence from peak-era Kraftwerk in both Malkmus’ vocal delivery and its layered synths. It may not have been what anyone was expecting from him, but the track ushered in a project that saw Malkmus exploring an intriguing (and often rewarding) direction.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

“Dark Wave”

from Pig Lib (2003)

As suggested by its title, the jammy Pig Lib takes a detour into sinister new wave on this mid-album track. Featuring one of the most indelible hooks of Malkmus’ post-Pavement career, “Dark Wave” is lean in comparison to the surrounding songs, but it packs a sizable punch in both its infectious melody and skittering rhythm.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

“Middle America”

from Sparkle Hard (2018)

Another one of those perfect mid-tempo numbers (à la “Freeze the Saints,” “Shady Lane,” or “Spit on a Stranger”), “Middle America” is the most obvious highlight from 2018’s consistently strong Sparkle Hard. Released as the album’s first single, it was quickly hailed as one of Malkmus’ best songs in ages – its good-natured instrumental backing and bittersweet lyrics put it on par with some of his finest work.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

“Stick Figures in Love”

from Mirror Traffic (2011)

The standout track from 2011’s Mirror Traffic, “Stick Figures in Love” matches a sharp fuzz guitar riff to a brisk tempo and energetic performance from The Jicks – all of it matched by the kind of cryptic lyricism that one had come to expect from Stephen Malkmus. Twenty years into his career, Malkmus still showed no signs of slowing down, continuing to release excellent album after excellent album in 2-3 year intervals.

Stephen Malkmus

“Jo Jo’s Jacket”

from Stephen Malkmus (2001)

Opening with a quote from Yul Brynner (and referencing his role in Westworld in the first verse), “Jo Jo’s Jacket” is arguably the fan favorite from Malkmus’ self-titled solo debut. While the same off-kilter charm that had defined his work in Pavement can be found in the song, Malkmus sounds far looser and more freewheeling than he had in years, dropping ad-libs and quoting Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” in the track’s extended outro.

Stephen Malkmus

“Post-Paint Boy”

from Face the Truth (2005)

A fine example of Malkmus’ “lyrical” approach to the guitar, “Post-Paint Boy” is another one of those tracks that scratches the Pavement itch – think Terror Twilight, in particular. It features a level of nuance that a younger Malkmus had only hinted at, but it retains the seemingly-effortless appeal that runs throughout his entire catalog.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

“Ramp of Death”

from Pig Lib (2003)

It says something when the least menacing track on an album is called “Ramp of Death.” My inclination for picking the more pop-oriented songs from Pig Lib may indicate that I’m not a fan of its more winding material, but really, it’s just that in an attempt to sell Pavement fans on the virtues of Stephen Malkmus’ solo career, it’s hard to imagine a track like this one not hitting the spot.

Stephen Malkmus

“Xian Man”

from Traditional Techniques (2020)

Malkmus’ latest album, 2020’s Traditional Techniques, shows that the thirty-year indie rock vet still has some tricks up his sleeve. As the record’s lead single, “Xian Man” puts its most accessible foot forward, but repurposes his idiosyncratic guitar heroics with a musical backing unlike anything he had attempted before.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks (feat. Kim Gordon)

“Refute”

from Sparkle Hard (2018)

Country music stood as a peripheral influence on Pavement, bubbling to the surface on catalog highlights such as “Range Life,” “Heaven Is a Truck,” and “Father to a Sister of Thought.” On Sparkle Hard‘s “Refute,” country music not only serves as a stylistic informant, but Malkmus also borrows from its storytelling tradition as well. The real coup comes with an appearance from Kim Gordon, who lends her unmistakable voice to the song’s second verse.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

“Gardenia”

from Real Emotional Trash (2008)

While it’s the most direct track on the often serpentine Real Emotional Trash, the conventionality of “Gardenia” is relative. After all, only Stephen Malkmus could make something catchy of a chorus such as the following:

You are a gardenia
Pressed in the campaign journal
In the rucksack of an Afrikaner

Candidate for mild reform

Stephen Malkmus

“Jenny and the Ess-Dog”

from Stephen Malkmus (2001)

Malkmus’ skill with narrative detail features on this standout from his solo debut – the second of three singles from the album. Its titular characters seem like an odd couple from the outset, but it all seems to function (“at least in a dog’s mind”). The real surprise is the emotional resonance that Malkmus is able to wrest from a scant few verses, but even that takes something of a backseat to the song’s killer hook.

Stephen Malkmus

“Baby C’mon”

from Face the Truth (2005)

Celebratory. Anthemic. Eminently quotable. “Baby C’mon” is all of these things and more. A melange of great riffs and shout-along refrains, it’s a definitive highlight from what may just be the best album of Malkmus’ solo career. Enjoy the ride.

Stephen Malkmus

“Grown Nothing”

from Groove Denied (2019)

While some might be tempted to characterize Groove Denied as Stephen Malkmus’ most “superficial” record, it ends on a plaintive note with this stark closer. Finding a middle ground between the electronic impulses that defined most of the preceding tracks and the more introspective elements of Malkmus’ songwriting, “Grown Nothing” closes out the album on an affecting high note.

Stephen Malkmus

“Amberjack”

from Traditional Techniques (2020)

The more I hear it, the more I fall for the rustic minimalism of 2020’s Traditional Techniques. Stephen Malkmus has spearheaded more than a few “growers” throughout his career (Wowee Zowee and Terror Twilight, in particular, have aged like a fine wine), and I’m inclined to think that this is an album that will continue to draw additional converts for years to come. Techniques ends on one of its loveliest numbers, which also provides a fine, contemplative conclusion to this playlist.

Author

  • Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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