Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

Real Emotional Trash

(Matador; 2008)

By Mark Abraham | 6 March 2008

It’s Rawk. Sort of. There’s far too many cutesy segues and interludes between the barn burning riffs to entirely peg Real Emotional Trash as an axe-wank album. In other words: yet another divisive album from Stephen Malkmus. Do you love his songwriting but hate his guitar noodling? Do you like it when his songs are crisply produced and think Pig Lib (2003) is the shit? Did you go boffo for Face the Truth’s (2005) synth-y toneage and quaint indie songsterism? Real Emotional Trash exists somewhere between those poles, a superficially different animal that maybe does rely too much on elongated guitar sequences—or, at least, that these solos aren’t segregated like solos, meaning some of the songs lope under the burden of jam-like consistency (although, really only “Elmo Delmo” could be compared directly to, say Phish, and that’s mostly due to the bass line and the modes used). Which, if you sit alone in your bedroom at night listening to Jimi Hendrix bootlegs probably isn’t an issue, but I’m willing to bet that even for many Malkmus enthusiasts the shit is too much.

But for some, it’s just what the doctor ordered, which, yay? This schism when approaching Malkmus’s oeuvre has existed since the Pavement days, between those who view that band as a rock band and those that view that band as the antidote to rock (and those that like Wowee Zowee, and those that thought “Carrot Rope” was awesome, and everything else). And I know I’m being reductive here, but Malkmus’s solo career has seemingly played those two sides of his fan-constructed personality off against one another, at least in terms of the way people access his music: those that want the kid with the guitar who just wants to rawk like his ’70s heroes, and those that want the linguist-savant indie-anthem composer who writes songs that describe us as we are. Let me get this out of the way: lyrically, I’ve always felt Malkmus writes bigger cheques than more than a second’s deliberation on the meanings of his lyrics can cash, but I feel okay saying that because I’ve also never gotten the impression that Malkmus invests much more into his words than what might sound cool in the particular moment he says them. So, lyrically? Real Emotional Trash is exactly what you might expect. Your opinion of the album will rely entirely on your impression of the music.

I say this to demonstrate the complicated shit Real Emotional Trash is up against. You launch an album off with the crunch guitars of “Dragonfly Pie” and it’s easy for the rawk heads to say, “finally, Malkmus is letting loose and offing the cute gimmicks and Pavement-lite wonkery.” A sentiment supported by new Jicks addition Janet Weiss who accomplished the same feat on Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods (2005). A sentiment that, in it’s own way, Real Emotional Trash does satisfy, sort of. But if this is Malkmus Letting Loose then somebody please explain to me why “Baltimore” morphs from Malkmus-typical guitar curlicues into a big rock anthem with invisible, ironic “!!!“s hanging in the air like the most sarcastic devil-horns you ever seen? Why do the line-lengths of “Gardenia” lock into the pop brevity with Jenga-like severity? Why does “Hopscotch Willie” waffle back and forth between Rawk and awesome ridiculousness? Isn’t this just classic Malkmus?

The biggest difference here, to me, has nothing to do with guitar solos. It’s the production and arrangements, which actually place the album closer to Face the Truth, at least in the sense that the Jicks seems less and less interested in crisp definitions and corners and more in relying on their ability to raunch through the tracks in real time. And it doesn’t even really matter how the Jicks’s albums were actually recorded. Pig Lib sounds painstakingly pieced together. If you listen to “Water and a Seat” or “1% of One” the guitar is rooted in the melody; any guitar riffs are squarely embedded in the architecture of the song and the other instruments are arranged around them. A song like “Real Emotional Trash” features equally engaging riffs; it’s just that Malkmus didn’t construct his vocal melodies in conjunction with them, instead using them as bridges between more traditional verse sections, excepting the part where he sings “Take the time / Let ‘em go down.” Other differences: Joanna Balme’s bass lines are far more fluid than they’ve been in the past, likely owing, at least in part, to her previous work with Weiss in Quasi, but also the most obvious indication that—even if I don’t agree that these songs sound all that jammy—the tracks were recorded live and together as a band, which means that sound of the tight, crisp time signature play of Pig Lib has been lost to the immediacy of band playing on a fluid track like “Out of Reaches.”

Mike Clark seems to play more guitar and less keyboards, which explains some of the uniformity of sound that seems to excite and turn off difference listeners, depending on what they expect from the band. But make no mistake: Real Emotional Trash contains the kind of pop-savant curios that make Malkmus Malkmus; the difference is just that, without the additional instrumentation that defined killer tracks like “Vanessa from Queens,” “(Do Not Feed the) Oyster,” and “Craw Song,” the shifts seem less broad. Most of these lie towards the end of Real Emotional Trash, too, which means that the tonal shifts happen less on the album. “We Can’t Help You” features some lovely vocal interplay and keyboards; it’s the most notably distinct here, save perhaps “Gardenia.” “Wicked Wanda” harkens back the the intricacy of Pig Lib’s arrangements, employing Face the Truth’s synth fetish to brilliant ends.

Ultimately, Real Emotional Trash is a victim of context, but I think it’s our context rather than Malkmus’s. I like it, but I like Pig Lib better, and that has to do almost entirely with the fact that I like crisp arrangements and complexity more than I like straight-ahead rocking. Here the Jicks do an incredible job of coming into their own as a band, channeling Malkmus’s sarcasm and foolery in a less controlled setting brilliantly; they just can’t, because of the immediacy of the album, tease out the full quirkyness. And so, while it’s weird to say this about an album that many are praising as Malkmus’s rockingest: I like it a lot, but I still wish there was more kick to it.