Do Not Feed the Singer

"No time to fight about the tension in the choir": Stephen Malkmus, front and center, with the Jicks
John Clark

Rumor has it that Stephen Malkmus wanted to credit his self-titled solo debut to the Jicks, but Matador talked him out of it. Ironically, his latest record, Pig Lib (Matador), is finally credited to a "real" band (SM & the Jicks), but this album has less of a group feel than the previous one, even though the personnel is essentially the same. In rock-crit parlance, it's usually a compliment to refer to a rhythm section as "sympathetic," and the Jicks are indeed sympathetic: They ably navigate the convolutions that Malkmus's serpentine neo-pop puts them (and the listener) through with a coolheaded lack of ostentation. But they're only sympathetic in the psychoanalytic sense--they understand Malkmus's songs, but aren't vested in them. And just because someone understands you doesn't mean that they love you. If the Jicks were truly committed to these songs, they'd eclipse their frontman occasionally, and if he were truly committed to his band, he'd let them.

Perhaps thinking of a band's rhythm section as "sympathetic" is a veiled and unwitting put-down. Truly great rhythm sections stand on their own, either giving off a sort of gang mentality, or sounding as if they're about to tackle their singer and give him a wedgie. A classic example of the former is Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman," in which the almost pathological devotion that Sledge is singing about is mirrored in--or even trumped by--the way the bass and drums interlock in a death embrace you couldn't pry apart with a claw hammer: two lovers in a suicide pact.

A perfect example of the wedgie rhythm section is Malkmus's old band Pavement. Wacky lyrics and sing-along hooks aside, what was so entertaining about Pavement was their strange group dynamic. Like a musical version of $20,000 Pyramid, the band would pantomime to the studio audience which pop conventions Malkmus's riffs were an example of, all while the clock ticked down to zero. But it was more like a bizarro-world version of Pyramid, where if the answer was "Eiffel Tower," the musical clues the band was haplessly spitting out were things like "Fits in a handbag!" "An acquired taste!" or "Looks like a sparkplug!" It was so much fun to watch everyone lose that you wanted to give them the $20,000 anyway, knowing they could record 20 more albums with it.

This kinetic group vibe functioned like a parallel narrative in Pavement's music, a sideshow that filled in the sketchy lyrics, and it's the very same je ne sais quoi that's sorely missing from Pig Lib. Listening to Slanted and Enchanted's first-take-or-less pop chaos was like watching a heady dadaist play broken up by an audience fight over a dropped pretzel. Was this tension between the avant and the savant scripted? Probably, but who cares? When Malkmus would really get into it, he'd break character, dropping his singer persona in charmingly ragged outbursts. Music scribes referred to these moments as exercises in "ironic detachment," but they were really the times in which Malkmus was most engaged--with the songs, with his band, and with us, the audience.

I wish Malkmus would either keep that organic misbehavior in his solo work, or own up to the fact that he's a real songwriter now, that he can do what he's doing straight-faced and make people listen unironically. With a rhythm section as utterly compliant as the Jicks, it seems counterproductive to keep doing smart-ass parodies of musical conventions that both band and songwriter--and audience, for that matter--genuinely dig. Take the Queen-referencing vocal turnaround in "(Do Not Feed the) Oyster," otherwise the strongest song on Pig Lib: Malkmus sings, "No time to fight about the tension in the choir," and the last word is echoed in mock "Bohemian Rhapsody"-Sprechstimme and climbing harmony, but only as a halfhearted throwaway buried in the mix. It's easy to blame the engineer...and fun, too, as Malkmus channels his hero Mark E. Smith's contempt for pothead studio technicians in "1% of One," his quasi-rewrite of the Fall's "Solicitor in Studio": "He knew not what band he mixed/They sounded a bit like the Zephyr and a bit like the Jicks/He craned his neck over the desk waiting for something to ride/And you weren't there to feed him air the moment that second arrived."

Maybe Malkmus is bummed that the engineer didn't mess things up enough. Sometimes pristinely recorded rock albums can be devastating in effect--the background recording technology rendered utterly transparent, casting the foreground of the songs in a stark light. (Another recent solo album, Azita's Enantiodromia, is like this: Its medium tempos and warm hi-fi recording sensibilities allow us our first clear glimpse of just how deeply warped the former Scissor Girl truly is.) In the '90s, bands like the Scissor Girls, the Dead C., and Royal Trux could rip people's heads off with distorted tape grot, but they hid in its chiaroscuro as well--the better to keep us guessing whether or not they really had anything to say with all that feedback and 60-cycle hum. Pig Lib, however, is very well-recorded, clean and upfront, a rock band in an antimicrobial tent. The airless quality of songs like "Water and a Seat" and "Vanessa from Queens" is almost like that of Steely Dan (and with some of the same soft-prog moves). Malkmus's songs have finally been delivered from the murk of basement 8-track and the need to navigate the fruitfully disruptive democracy that a real band can be. Unfortunately, "progressiveness" isn't always progress. It has killed greater songwriters.

One wonders what this record would have been like had it been recorded live before a studio audience. Pavement was once Malkmus's studio audience; they'd cue everyone on when to laugh, or hold up placards with applause scrawled on them. A peanut gallery beyond the drum baffles might be able to tell Malkmus when to laugh on his next record. As it stands, this one is a bit like watching a sitcom with canned silence.

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