If you've never heard Stephen Malkmus, you might want to begin with one of the more accessible of his four solo albums, be it the self-titled debut or 2005's watertight Face the Truth. But if you're familiar with his individual work or that of his former band, Pavement, Real Emotional Trash will settle right in as the next chapter of the eccentric Portlander's prolificacy. Leading the Jicks this time is ex-Sleater-Kinney drummer (and backing vocalist) Janet Weiss, who--while she never lets loose to pound her skins to oblivion--does manage to reel in the band on extended jams like that of the intricate "Elmo Delmo," a bluesy murder yarn called "Hopscotch Willie," or the sprawling 10-minute title track. Malkmus's guitar fixation tends to overshadow his roguish, pop-sharp song craft this time around, with fewer catchy choruses and more axe-driven bypasses, save for the peculiar "Cold Son" and the joyful live-show staple "Gardenia." Then again, Trash's capriciousness and experimental willingness are what gave Malkmus an audience in the first place--and what promise to keep it coming back for more. --Scott Holter
Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Stephen Malkmus' solo career seems to be settling into a pattern of alternating between skewed, spiky pop albums bearing his lone credit and long, languid collections of jams with the Jicks -- as 2005's Face the Truth belonged to the former category and its 2008 follow-up, Real Emotional Trash, fits neatly into the latter. That's not to say that this is a retread of the lazily intriguing, formless Pig Lib. Where Pig Lib wandered aimlessly, adrift on its insular guitars, Real Emotional Trash is focused and propulsive, even if the band invariably circles around a point instead of tackling it directly. Perhaps some of this precision is due to the presence of former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss as the Jicks' new anchor -- she grounds them and pushes them harder, giving Malkmus a solid foundation he's never quite had either in Pavement or on his own -- but Malkmus also sounds clear-headed here, as any new father of two should be. He's shed the haziness that plagued Pig Lib, yet he's still intoxicated by the sounds he can make, usually with his guitar but also with his mouth, as his words have never sounded so much like a fanciful collection of sounds, each syllable bouncing off the next in the melody. He sings like he plays his guitar, twisting and turning, grooving on the very sound of it all, and it's hard not to ride along on his wave. In a decade when indie rock has been dominated by preciously plucked six-strings and symphonies, it's rather thrilling to hear the surge of sound on Real Emotional Trash. It, as much as any modern record could be, is a love letter to the guitar, but Malkmus' love of rock & roll arcana has pushed early influences of the Fall and Sonic Youth to the side in favor of the seriously weird, often maddeningly uneven, post-hippie ramble of obscure psychedelia and acid rock. With this incarnation of the Jicks, Malkmus has finally created his own version of Mad River, the Groundhogs, or the Coloured Balls, a band that is casually yet deeply idiosyncratic and certainly not to everybody's taste, including legions of Pavement fans who may miss the mess he conjured a decade ago. Frankly, it's their loss if they don't want to follow Malkmus down this road, as Real Emotional Trash is invigorating simply as pure sheets of sound. It's heavy on long tunes -- six of the ten weigh in at well over five minutes, with the title track pushing a bit past ten -- but each cut rides its own rhythm, with the shorter numbers -- the sprightly, bubblegummy "Gardenia" and easy-rolling "We Can't Help You" -- acting as palette cleansers. Real Emotional Trash isn't quite the Jicks' spin on Wowee Zowee -- it explores one place thoroughly instead of wandering all over the map -- but it has that same untrammeled spirit that made Pavement's third album so addictive, and like that masterpiece, it may be a bit of a litmus test among fans, as a bit of time is required for it to grow. That, more than anything -- more than the heady '70s guitar worship on display, more than the warm growl of the amplifiers -- gives Real Emotional Trash a welcome old-fashioned feeling: it's an album meant to be discovered and lived with, revealing its jokes and its beauty over time.
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks
Real Emotional Trash
The first line of Real Emotional Trash begs to be read autobiographically: "Of all my stoned digressions/ Some have mutated into the truth/ Not a spoof." It's the same tease that Malkmus pulled by calling his last album Face the Truth, in spite of its characteristically elusive contents. While that record featured Malkmus fully indulging his penchant for eclectic basement tinkering, Real Emotional Trash is an unabashedly rock'n'roll band album. It's the most aesthetically cohesive album of Malkmus' solo career (which is good), but also the jammiest (which, here, is bad). The record may sound like it would have been a blast to play on, but that doesn't always make for an engrossing listen.
On the plus side, Real Emotional Trash is still a Stephen Malkmus album, and it's host to all his pursuant charms and quirks. As a writer, Malkmus remains in top form; the album is rife with character-based songwriting that seems increasingly rare and valuable as songwriters increasingly grapple with overstated signifiers of sincerity. Even the album's title is characteristically apt-but-not-apt; though the material on Real Emotional Trash could hardly be considered straightforwardly "emotional" (even in comparison to Malkmus' output at large), there's a very real sense of excitement that comes from its communal sound.
The excitement is justified, too; these Jicks (Malkmus included) are stellar musicians. Malkmus shows off his band's strengths right off the bat; "Dragonfly Pie" is equal parts swaggering indie and 1970s AOR, coupling simple and memorable melodic phrases with synchronized, fuzzy guitar riffs. There are some moments of extreme understated structural elegance here; as the song's chorus emerges from a tangled verse, Sleater-Kinney/Quasi drummer (and now Jick) Janet Weiss' muscular and precise drumming lends the song a unified sense of purpose that's largely been absent from Malkmus' solo work.
Unfortunately, it doesn't last. Many of the songs on Real Emotional Trash start promising, but quickly become frustratingly repetitive and aimless. At times, the album veers satisfyingly into proggy excess or White Stripes-like forceful minimalism, but never commits to either. If anything, it sounds like the work of a band that knows how to play well together, but can't necessarily convey a purpose beyond that. "Hopscotch Willie" starts out with a pleasant verse (that actually brings to mind the melody from Sade's "Smooth Operator"), but by the six-minute mark you're, uh, well aware that you've hit the six-minute mark.
The album drags even more with its title track, one of many on Real Emotional Trash that struggles to construct an epic from just a handful of memorable moments. The song’s extended midsection deftly shows off the band’s ability to work in tandem, but it's not a gesture that rewards repeat listens. Thankfully, the album picks up with lead single "Baltimore" and the under-three-minute, almost-"Reelin' in the Years"-quoting "Gardenia", both of which use the band’s strength to put some extra oomph into already-great songs. Closer "Wicked Wanda" is great, too, incorporating enough musical curveballs to keep things interesting.
Then again, "Wicked Wanda" is a fitting end for a record that is something of a curveball itself. Face the Truth overflowed with incongruous musical ideas, but Real Emotional Trash is determinedly unified, even if it isn't always clear to what ends. At its best, the record hints at opening a whole new musical world for Malkmus-- one in which his well-worn style is effectively played down in the service of a mighty rock'n'roll band. Otherwise, it's simply a satisfying, if underdeveloped, gesture towards something much greater than itself.
-Matt LeMay, March 03, 2008