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.
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