Thick swaths of amplified electric guitar kick off Stephen Malkmus’ fourth post-Pavement album (the second credited to the Jicks), a flashpot smoking, hash-redolent bit of 1970s rock homage that will put you in mind of Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath. It’s a fitting start to a record that was, reportedly, built though free-form jam sessions with Malkmus, long-time Jicks Joanna Bolme and Mike Clark, and new recruit Janet Weiss hammering through the slow rhythms and serpentine flourishes of its extended, loosely structured cuts. But the thing about jams is that they’re more fun for participants than they are for listeners. At some point, the groove has to turn into a song, or no one’s going to want to listen.
Real Emotional Trash accomplishes this intermittently, but not every time, and Malkmus seems to know it. “Of all my stoned digressions / some have mutated into the truth,” he observes, as the guitar haze of “Dragonfly Pie” briefly clears. Some is the key word here, because there are long stretches of digression here, and only occasional flashes of truth.
“Baltimore”, the first single, is arguably the most successful at fusing Malkmus’ outside-the-lines guitar playing with a memorable melody. It’s huge washes of altered guitars and anxious clatter of drums are wed to a song that’s almost folky, and built on measured, modal melodies. There’s a break, mid-cut, where choppy chords punctuate a chorus and warm, viscous guitar runs crest and recede like a long-lost Thin Lizzy bridge. It’s loosely strung, but never gets lost, not even in the jammy coda where everyone freaks, continuously, only to pull back into the central riff at the end. You can see how it might have been built on improvisation, but was later codified, cleaned up and made into an accessible package.
Similarly, “Cold Son” follows a thread of memorable melody, gaining tension out of its squiggly, space age keyboards and palm muted strums, but slicking it all over with the easy tunefulness of the chorus. And “Hopscotch Willie”, where you can hear Ms. Weiss the best, slips in some glossy teardrop-shape blots of sound that will remind you of George Harrison. Now that the band is half girls, there are lots of pretty female harmonies and flourishes in the mix, wafting guitar-heavy interludes into pop.
The writing is clever as always, full of trippy ellipses, brightly colored metaphors and sudden flashes of insight. “Hopscotch Willie” and “Wicked Wanda”, both not-so-far from Pavement’s sound musically, construct line-drawn characters out of offhand alliterations. “Wicked wicked Wanda / I’d rather take Rwanda,” deadpans Malkmus in the album’s final track, limning the Hollywood heartless woman with “no time to accommodate.” Malkmus takes a poke at his own “Do Not Feed the Oyster” in “Cold Son”, asking, “Who was it that said, ‘the world is your oyster’? / I feel like a nympho in a cloister.” It’s all very knowing and arch, but not labored over. You might, in conversation with a very smart, very funny, very stoned person who has suddenly started to rhyme.
Yet the longer tracks (“Elmo Delmo” and, particularly, the title cut) bog down in endless noodling. There’s nothing wrong with the jam — they’re all skilled musicians and obviously enjoying things — but it never goes anywhere. As Malkmus observes in the midst of “Real Emotional Trash”, “The trail has two ruts / one is just a tunnel / the other is a funnel to the tune.” If Real Emotional Trash falls short of Pig Lib, it’s because we’re spending too much time in the tunnel, and not enough in the funnel to the tune.