Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
BEWARE: This review exhibits no Pavement-related nostalgia. See, I’m one of a small-but-growing group of rock critics who is too young to remember Pavement’s glory days. It’s hard not to know that there were such glory days, of course, because cred-seeking music journalists and record store employees drop the band’s name every chance they get. It used to annoy me, but now I get it: Pavement put out some great records and played some amazing shows. Good. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way… Because I never saw a Pavement show or bought a Pavement album on the day of its release (I hear they had something called “cassettes” at the time?) I equated Stephen Malkmus fandom with my interest in the Senior PGA tour: however much the young golfers like Tiger Woods were “changing the game,” sometimes I just wanted to see the graceful Jack Nicklaus. It didn’t matter to me that Tiger had better scores; the Golden Bear still had something worth showing off, and it seemed a bit more fun. There’s something fascinating to me about that sense of relief a person exhibits when — after years of pressure and intense attention — he can just relax, knowing that with or without any additional achievements, people will revere him for the rest of his life. When I first heard Stephen Malkmus’s second solo album, 2003’s Pig Lib, that’s what it felt like: Malkmus was still making music, but he wasn’t pioneering any longer. Some critics tanked the album, but they were wrong: just because Jack Nicklaus of 2002 wasn’t shattering records like Tiger doesn’t mean he didn’t have anything left to teach us — I still couldn’t have beaten him, that’s for sure. In a way, of course, Pig Lib was a let-down, but that didn’t make it awful — just so-so. When I first heard this year’s Face The Truth I wasn’t sure what to think. In many ways, it was just another Pig Lib, but there was something better about it. It was a little more heartfelt, a little catchier, and it seemed to show an artist starting to move forward again. That said, while I was happy to hear it, it wasn’t going to make my list of favorite albums. After a few listens, it vanished into the 60-gigabyte abyss that is my iTunes library, not to be heard again until last week, when I heard Stephen Malkmus was playing in Brussels, Belgium. The chance to see someone like Malkmus doesn’t come every day, so I took the 35-minute train ride from the college town where I’m studying to Brussels, hoping to see what an American rock ‘n’ roll show is like in Belgium. The first thing I realized when I arrived is that Ancienne Belgique is an indie rock palace. I walked inside to hear the new Franz Ferdinand album (not scheduled to be released here for another week) playing in the bar area and plasma screens hanging from the ceilings notifying me that that’s what we were hearing. Then the plasma screens switched slides, this time displaying a timeline of the evening’s events: they would start with a free showing of Slow Century (a documentary about Pavement) in the screening room upstairs, continue with opening act The Cribs, and then Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks would play followed by a free show in the club upstairs (featuring the band Fence). The 19 Euro ticket didn’t seem so bad after all — especially when I found out that Stella Artois was the beer on tap, and that it only cost two Euros. At a concert venue, that sounded like a pretty good deal, so I took full advantage. I ended up hanging out in the bar for most of Slow Century, so when I went upstairs to check it out, the theater was too packed to find a seat. It sounded great from around the corner, though. Then it was time for the live music: the Cribs, who seem to be Yorkshire, England’s answer to “Hash Pipe” and Saves The Day, were up first. While the three brothers’ sound isn’t my favorite, they have more energy than I’ve seen in a long time: drummer Ross Jarman liked to stand up on his stool while he drummed, and the twins Ryan and Gary alternated their screaming parts throughout the set. I was surprised to see them opening for Stephen Malkmus (both because of their sound and because they haven’t been around for very long) but I respect their enthusiasm. After their hour-long set (strictly on schedule), it was time for Stephen Malkmus. I visited the bar once or twice as the roadies were setting up, and then out Malkmus and the Jicks came. As Malkmus approached the microphone, it was difficult to hear what he was saying. A few seconds later, though, it became clear that he was attempting to speak French (and a bit of Dutch). The Brussels crowd was mostly French-speaking, so they seemed pleased, but the novelty of it wore off before Malkmus reverted to English. On stage, he seemed sheepish; he didn’t act like the established indie rock star that I expected. At one point during the set, someone from the crowd yelled out either a request or a question that was inaudible. Jicks bassist Joanna Bolme joked that she might have understood the question to mean “Prove you’re God”, and so Malkmus spent a minute dropping the names of famous philosophers (e.g., Descartes, Kant) who have tried to do so already, making it unnecessary (if not futile) for him to try. But however conversational he was between songs, Malkmus played like a rock star. A few false starts notwithstanding, when he got to playing he played it like we were the last crowd who was going to hear it. I kept watching for times when Malkmus seemed to simply be “going through the motions” to write about, but they never came. Sure, he was polished, and nothing threw him off; but he wanted to be there as much as we all did. He even spent a minute complimenting the venue. However much I wanted the show to fit with my Senior PGA tour analogy, it didn’t. I’ve heard it said that in showbiz years 40-year-olds are 60-year-olds, but the enthusiastic, humble 40-year-old Malkmus could have passed for 25. He seems still to be optimistic about the future in ways that other established artists don’t feel the need to be. While it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for Malkmus to play a set of “greatest hits,” he didn’t: his set showcased his new work — mainly from Pig Lib. For the nostalgic Pavement fans, that might have been disappointing (although by now I’m sure they knew what to expect), but I loved it. Perhaps Malkmus has a few more Masters championships in him after all.