Square-jawed and beatific, Stephen Malkmus has been the poster child for slack refinement ever since Pavement, his now-defunct former band, released Slanted and Enchanted, back in 1992. As with the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks and R.E.M.’s Murmurdebut LPs that, beginning with their titles, also came with a fully realized aesthetica scene coalesced around Slanted and Enchanted. A kind of lo-fi alternative to the so-called alternative nation, that scene featured a sizable contingent of underemployed grad students whose student-loan deferments and drinking habits provided plenty of time for deconstructing Malkmus’ cryptically clever words, often with a passion usually reserved for the likes of Dylan or Lou Reed. Malkmus, Pavement’s chief aesthetician, played his part perfectly, eschewing interviews and even photographs for a while (because, as he once sang, “We need secrets”) before succumbing to his own star power and going, relatively speaking, pop. Videos, Lollapalooza, getting ripped off by Blurall of these followed in fairly quick succession.
“Cut Your Hair,” the sarcastic single from Pavement’s second five-star outing, Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, was about the most the group was ever willing to do for an actual hit, however. A clanging, hyperironic parable about the fine art of selling out in the indie age, the track featured sample copy for an aspiring band’s classified ad (“Advertising looks and chops a must/No big hair!”), falsetto backing vocals, and, in one of his most characteristic lyrical moves, Malkmus slurring his words provocatively, most famously turning a bitterly shouted “career” into “Korea” at the song’s end. Deep stuff, no doubtwhich often seemed to be precisely the same arch reaction the band had to its own material. Beating naysayers to the punch, Pavement even hired a full-time heckler, multi-instrumentalist Bob Nastanovich, whose main responsibility involved shouting over or otherwise obscuring the parts of the songs Malkmus wasn’t so sure about, of which there were plenty.
Pavement got away with its preciousness, though, because, when he wanted to, Malkmus could actually write killer rock songs, with all the attention to detail of a true music obsessive. Crooked Rain’s “Silence Kit”or, as the lyrics but not the cover art put it, “Silent Kid”hijacks the main riff from Free’s “All Right Now” but warps the rhythm; Slanted and Enchanted’s “Trigger Cut/Wounded-Kite at :17” recycles the chorus of Jim Croce’s “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” to particularly transcendental effect; Brighten the Corners’ blistering “Stereo” shows Damon Albarn who’s boss and name-checks Geddy Lee; and nearly all of the band’s five albums feature more than their fair share of expert, near-jam-band-quality riff-mongering. True, the songs Malkmus wrote for Pavement were fractured and demented (the Fall and, especially, the Velvet Underground were major influences), but even if the singer himself had a hard time getting beyond the hipster irony and cool reserve that sometimes seemed to be prerequisites for his music, the big hooks he supplied made many fans suspect that, deep down, Malkmus really wanted to rock, not “rock.”
On the new “Black Book,” the singer does exactly that, fashioning a sinewy guitar riff and nonsensical phrase-making into the most straight-ahead rock song he’s ever recorded. “The black book/You took/Was permanently diversified,” he sings during the chorus, lingering almost salaciously over each of the five syllables he gives “permanently.” The song, the first track on Stephen Malkmus, features plenty of the high-drama guitar heroics that Malkmus has been perfecting for years. Equal parts Allman Brothers and Television, the track kick-starts a surprisingly ambitious solo debut that’s easily the best, most consistently great record Malkmus has made since Wowee Zowee, Pavement’s underrated 1995 LP.
Reflexive irony dies hard, though, and it’s apparently impossible for Malkmus to keep the smirky in-jokes out of the mix entirely. On “The Hook,” Malkmus spins an absurd, kidnapped-by-pirates yarn over a CCR-style blues romp (a late-period Pavement weakness) that brushes up against the hook from Elton John’s “Island Girl.” And the incessantly catchy “Jo Jo’s Jacket” opens with a snippet of an interview with Yul Brynner on the topic of shaving his head (“It has simplified everything for me. It has opened a lot of doors, maybe” ) before Malkmus, assuming Brynner’s point of view, endorses Westworld’s android gunslinger as the actor’s best film role: “I cannot deny I/Felt right at home/Deep inside that electronic/Carcass.” The other verses wander away from the film, but “electronic carcass” also works pretty well as an image of someone being punished by the techno music Malkmus derides elsewhere in the song: “We’ll tie you to a chair/The house music will blare/And turn your ears into a medicinal jelly.”
Given his own track record of inspired but emotionally distant music-making, it’s not hard to puzzle out Malkmus’ fascination with Brynner’s robotic cowboy. This time, though, Malkmus actually seems sincere once in a while. “Church on White” is a shimmering, slow-motion prom theme, a languid Smiths song for contemporary high school hipsters: “All you really wanted/Was everything plus everything,” Malkmus sings breathlessly. And the pulsating “Vague Space” laces letter-perfect Beatlesisms through splashes of church organ and shards of staccato wah-wah guitar. Best of all, though, is “Jennifer and the Ess-Dog,” a Byrdsian break-up song about a couple who “Kiss when they listen/To Brothers in Arms.” Dire Straits as make-out music? Malkmus doesn’t get it, either, and, not surprisingly, the relationship falters when Jennifer heads off to study pre-law in Boulder and the Ess-Dog (“Sean, if you wish”) sells the guitar he used in his ’60s cover band en route to a job as a waiter.
That kind of idiosyncratic detail permeates much of Stephen Malkmus and serves as a rarefied, hyperliterate counterpoint to the album’s mainly straight-up rock ‘n’ roll. Ever the irony addict, Malkmus apparently couldn’t help but make his most musically inviting album his most logorrheic one as well. The record, unfortunately, is being hyped with a credibility-straining abandon that recalls the same spastic push Columbia gave Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom, another ambitious, gorgeously produced album that Malkmus’ wordy disc occasionally resembles. But you should believe the hype. Like Costello’s best records, Stephen Malkmus is both cerebral and soulful. It also rocks. One expects great things for its maker’s solo Korea.
Dog in the Sand, the latest offering from Frank Black and the Catholics, is apparently being hyped about as much as Teenager of the Year, Black’s best post-Pixies effort. What? You’ve never heard of that one, either? Like Malkmus, Black fronted a seminal indie band, although he did so under the name Black Francis, a handle that perfectly suited the dark, manic, and hugely influential brand of bizarro rock music the Pixies unleashed beginning in the late ’80s. Since then, however, Black has had considerable difficulty escaping that band’s zeppelinlike shadow and translating his status as a card-carrying luminary into much of a solo career. Not even the oddball name change has helped much.
After a string of hit-and-miss solo efforts released under the Frank Black moniker during the early and mid ’90s, Black finally recruited his current crop of backing musicians, the Catholics, in 1998. He’s been cranking out albums at an alarming pace ever since, trying to follow ex-bandmate Kim Deal into post-Pixie nirvana. Most of these have been riff-heavy, blues-rock affairsgreat when the songs have hooks but grinding and barely listenable otherwise.
Dog in the Sand, however, gets the balance exactly right, emphasizing Black’s gift for melody and musical detail at the occasional expense of pro forma heaviosity. “Stupid Me” nicks its lilting rhythm and treble-clef piano attack from a hundred innocent ’50s love songs, but Black’s eerily serene crooner’s voice will bring to mind Dean Stockwell’s creepy lip-sync of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet. On the tuneful “I’ve Seen Your Picture,” Black affects the same thick accent Mick Jagger used for “Angie,” adapting it perfectly to his signature cryptic couplets: “I smelled the engines of the engineer/I saw the profits of the profiteer.” “Blast Off,” the album opener, is similarly Stonesful, with a feral backbeat and biting guitar riffs providing the perfect setting for Black’s barks and growls: “I’m headed for the dark/Take shit as shit is/If you can take this town/I say good show.”
Black and his Catholics go in for the kill repeatedly on this first-rate disc, but the ultraviolent “Hermaphroditos” is the best of the bunch. Over a supple, insistent rhythm, Black gets back in touch with his inner Georges Bataille, the persona that, circa Doolittle, used to watch surrealist films and fixate on images of slicing up eyeballs, oh-ho-ho-ho: “How do you love me/Deeply with your scalpel/I got a mouthful/Of suicidal drugs.” Marshall Mathers, are you listening? I certainly hope not. CP