Stephen Malkmus Goes Folk on 'Traditional Techniques'
Stephen Malkmus' Traditional Techniques melds folk-rock flavoring with junk-food surrealism delivered through his characteristic brand of irony.
6 March 2020
I've internalized the music of Stephen Malkmus to the point that now when I swagger onto the karaoke stage at the local hipster dive bar, I catch myself emulating his flippant vocal delivery, even while belting out "Raspberry Beret" and "Rock the Casbah". Flatten the climactic high note. Slide into an unexpected minor key. Debase the last syllable of that chorus into a garbled yowl. Hold 'til vocal cords smolder to a tuneless croak. (To my disappointment, the crowd has never collectively yelled, "Shoot the singer!")
It's understood that every music critic approaches a record review with a stack of biases taller than their vinyl collection. We are fans, after all. So I can't listen to the latest solo album by Stephen Malkmus, Traditional Techniques, without fragments of Jicks and Pavement songs crashing around my brain. The cumulative weight of personal attachment to a discography that goes back 30 years can't be unloaded, so you might as well make something out of it. I constructed a monument.
Does that make the review you're reading no more objective than if it had been written by someone whose register of indie rock skipped over Slanted & Enchanted and everything that followed? I suspect that an abundance of context combined with a deep-seated fondness for an artist may be a formula for critical deceit. If you love something enough and can rattle off a comprehensive history/analysis/defense of it, you can get pretty far at convincing someone it's objectively great. Of course, nothing is objectively great until it solidifies into some canonical framework, which can be the grandest critical deceit of all.
With that in mind: the new Stephen Malkmus album is great.
An issue one might raise against this statement is that Traditional Techniques isn't demanding of your attention. If I had to sum the record up in three words, they'd be "Malkmus goes folk". Casual listeners will complain it's "too slow". We aren't descending on the rock and roll nightclub but gathering around the campfire. Which is to say: there's no party. There are maybe two songs that could be labeled upbeat. The garage-rock fuckery is limited to a distortion-scrabbled keyboard at the end of "Brainwashed". Aside from some exuberant soloing on "Xian Man", there's no electric guitar thrashing. There are ornate instrumental flourishes, but they service songs that seem to have been written for a solo singer/strummer and were then fleshed out accordingly. This isn't a Jicks release, remember?
You'll have to put some effort into this one. Traditional Techniques doesn't have the pizazz of the previous album, Groove Denied, which was inspired by dance music and opened with an electro-rock cranker aptly titled "Belziger Faceplant". A closer listen is necessary, but the reward is a record that's tighter and lyrically richer.
"ACC Kirtan" opens the album with what sounds like a sitar, banjo, and flute coalescing in an echo pool of harmony resembling strains of traditional Indian music. Thirty-five seconds in, the acoustic guitar declares itself at the forefront of the song and the album. A female vocalist joins in for the chorus: "The Duraflame's wet / The ganache won't set / Where are the rings / For my sweet serviettes?" And so the album's theme of melding "traditional techniques" with junk-food surrealism is delivered through Malkmus's characteristic brand of irony.
For fans who enjoy parsing out Malkmus's oblique wordplay, "Shadowbanned" is worth noting as the album's foremost head-scratcher. The song is a return to, and perhaps a surpassing of, Wowee Zowee-era wackiness. "I call dibs on the sax in abandoned jazz land / I'm praying for a multiverse / It's a cherry idea, just refuse to argue," he sings in a herky-jerky lilt that borders on the grating. Detractors of his tongue-in-cheek funsies (see: "Stephen Malkmus is a Fucking Snob" by September 67) will hear an overwrought throwaway where certain longtime fans may hear a lyrical tour-de-force.
But what's always grounded Malkmus' songwriting and kept these longtime fans sifting through the lyrical sieve are the inklings of sincerity and vulnerability poking through his armor of witticisms. Traditional Techniques contains more of these moments than Groove Denied, a possible side-effect of its folk-roots flavoring.
The narrator of "Amberjack" contemplates the consequences of leaving and returning to the people you love. "Miss you more / Life itself don't miss / Anything at all / That's just the way it is" and ends the album on a redemptive note: "This amberjack / Let's throw it back." Similarly, "What Kind of Person" is the closest Malkmus has ever come to penning a straightforward love song. Complete with frolicking flute solos, the track might have sunk to mush had he not tossed in the blatant allusion to sex. "It took some hours / To get your fill / Dirty deeds." Tuck that heart back under your sleeve! Did you forget who you're listening to?
The replayability award goes to "The Greatest Own in Legal History", in which an arrogant defense lawyer pens a letter to his client predicting a breezy trial while billows of pedal-steel twang overhead. It's a golden-hued expanse of melody that's made an ideal soundtrack for driving into the creamy sunrises of rural Ohio on my morning commute. But take my admiration with a grain of salt. For me, the best Pavement album never made was a dalliance with country music in the vein of "Range Life" and "Father to a Sister of Thought". This song is probably the closest I'll ever get to that.
Malkmus seems to be tapping a wellspring of inspiration since recording Sparkle Hard with the Jicks in the summer of 2017. Traditional Techniques lands as another solid effort, the third album he's released, with or without the Jicks, since May of 2018. I say, Keep pace! How about a discursion into synthpop? A three-chord punk-rock party? Autotune-glazed R&B? I'll consume them all, though I can't be sure of the size of the minority this will put me in. Fandom leaves you blind like that.
The below rating of seven out of ten stars represents how I expect a casual listener to judge this record. It's my attempt at feigning some level of objectivity, for what it's worth.
Don't settle for casual listening.
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