Where To Start With... Stephen Malkmus
Type the words 'slacker bands' or 'slacker rock' into your search engine of choice and it's likely that the first results will include Pavement, the lo-fi alt-rock outfit whose somewhat reluctant emergence onto the scene in the early 1990s helped set the template for an underground rock scene that also included bands such as Dinosaur Jr.
Formed in Stockton, California – once labelled by a Forbes survey as “America's most miserable city” - Pavement began as a studio-based project spearheaded by lead vocalist / chief songwriter Stephen Malkmus and guitarist Scott Kannberg, initially avoiding live performances or requests for press interviews as their self-released demos began circulating and earning the band a reputation.
Their debut album, Slanted and Enchanted, had been circulating amongst their fans on cassette for almost a year before the band were snapped up by New York-based indie label Matador, who eventually released the album in April 1992.
Four more albums followed over the next seven years, with the band scoring the odd minor hit along the way, but by the time of their fifth and final album, Terror Twilight, cracks were beginning to appear. After some initial album sessions that proved to be unproductive, the band decided to bring in a producer to help them and hired longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich.
By all accounts, the recording sessions were a struggle and Kannberg, in particular, was frustrated at his inability to convince the rest of the band to include any of his songs on the album. Relationships between band members deteriorated further on the resulting tour, and on the night of what would turn out to be Pavement's last live show at London's Brixton Academy in 1999, Malkmus performed with a set of handcuffs dangling from his microphone stand which, he told the audience, "symbolise what it's like being in a band all these years."
With that, Pavement were no more, but Malkmus wasted little time in moving on to work on his first solo album, which emerged just two years later in 2001. Although its eponymous title suggests that Malkmus was working alone, the backing musicians who perform on the album would eventually evolve into The Jicks, with whom Malkmus released his next post-Pavement album Pig Lib in 2003.
The last album released under his own name was 2005's Face the Truth, although even then The Jicks are credited on the rear of the album's cover and every member of the band appears on at least one of the album's 11 tracks. Aside from the odd contribution to another side project Silver Jews with longtime friend David Berman, all of the albums Malkmus has subsequently released have been credited to Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, beginning with 2008's Real Emotional Trash.
While each of these albums contained the odd flash of brilliance, it was arguably with their 2011 album Mirror Traffic that Malkmus & The Jicks began to really hit their creative stride. With this and the two albums that have followed since, 2014's Wig Out at Jagbags and last year's Sparkle Hard, Malkmus has returned to the kind of songwriting form that made Pavement one of the most influential bands of the 90s.
His latest offering, then, comes as something of a surprise. Announced in January this year, new album Groove Denied is not only the third album that Malkmus will have released under his own name, but it's also what could be described as his first real solo album, with Malkmus not only writing all of the material but also playing every instrument and producing the album himself.
Recorded over the course of around 12 years, the album was originally turned over to his label in 2017 and, to his surprise, it was rejected. Matador president and founder Chris Lombardi, who has been releasing albums by Malkmus' various bands since 1992, reportedly flew to Portland to tell Malkmus in person, explaining that he didn't believe it was the right time. Fortunately, Malkmus took the rejection well and, even more fortunately, the label boss eventually changed his mind.
On first listen, Groove Denied is certainly different enough from Malkmus' recent work with the Jicks to see why his label were initially alarmed; fizzing synths and drum machines replace the fuzzy guitars of his recent output, but don't let that worry you; Groove Denied is the sound of Malkmus doing everything on his own terms and he's clearly enjoying himself.
You can find the video for new song 'Viktor Borgia' below, beneath that we've picked out five key tracks from his long career for those unfamiliar with the size and scope of his back catalogue...
'Cut Your Hair'
Despite their influence on bands who arrived later, Pavement were never overburdened with commercial success of their own, but the closest they came to crossing over into the mainstream was probably with this cut from their 1994 sophomore album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, in which Malkmus skewers the music industry's obsession with the importance of image in a fake classified ad: “Advertising looks and chops a must / No big hair!”
Of all the songs in Pavement's catalogue, this track taken from their fourth album Brighten the Corners is perhaps the best example of Malkmus' stream-of-consciousness lyrical style, veering from lamenting crumbling infrastructure to musing about the speaking voice of Rush bassist Geddy Lee. It also happens to be one of the band's most accessible tunes, with arguably their catchiest chorus hook to boot.
'Jo Jo's Jacket'
Malkmus released his eponymous solo debut just two years after Pavement's split and there are several moments on the album where the sense of relief is palpable. Perhaps the most obvious of these appears in the opening bars of 'Jo Jo's Jacket', where a sample of Yul Brynner describing the liberating feeling of shaving his head gives way to a lyric written from the late actor's point of view. "I was just making up lyrics off the top of my head to make the band laugh”, he later said of the song's somewhat random narrative. If nothing else, after Pavement's difficult split this is evidence that Malkmus was finally beginning to enjoy himself again.
If the first two albums from Malkmus' new band The Jicks felt like they were building towards something, then their third LP, 2011's Mirror Traffic, might be considered the moment that their sound really started to come together. We could just as easily have picked others on the album such as 'Stick Figures in Love' or the hilarious 'Senator', but the album's opening gambit serves as a great opening to the best album Malkmus had been involved with in years.
Our final pick is taken from The Jicks' 2014 album Wig Out at Jagbags and is perhaps the best recent example of why Malkmus seems to endure where many of his peers have faded from view; instantly melodic, a little rough around the edges and utterly impossible to dislike, 'Lariat' is filled with the puzzle-ridden lyrics that Malkmus is known for, but it's the way the song just kind of disintegrates at the end that makes this one of the most Malkmus things ever.
Groove Denied is available in hmv stores now...