In case you were harboring any nutso notions that Pavement’s trademark sound sprang from the brain of, say, bassist Mark Ibold, former frontman Stephen Malkmus has released a solo debut that sounds a whole lot like his old band: loose, tuneful, and warm. Now we know.
But while Pavement had dulled to sluggish folk rock competence by their unenthusiastic last album, 1999’s ”Terror Twilight,” Malkmus’ disc is full of humor and energy. Backed by a Portland twosome dubbed the Jicks (drummer John Moen and bassist Joanna Bolme), Malkmus sounds positively jaunty as he tosses off sublime nonsense about high seas high jinks (”At age 19 I was kidnapped by Turkish pirates/ Mediterranean thugs”), the minor annoyances afflicting British imperialists (”I had a crap gin and tonic/ It wounded me”), and Yul Brynner (”Perhaps you saw me in ‘Westworld’/ I acted like a robotic cowboy”).
This is silly stuff, obviously, but it’s a welcome return to the giddy wit that had dimmed as Pavement tried to contort itself into a conventional rock band. It must have been frustrating for Malkmus to tailor his increasingly sophisticated songs to the somewhat limited talents of his sidemen; in recent years it seemed like he’d given up trying to push the band forward. (Reportedly, several of these tunes were written for Pavement but scrapped when the band couldn’t play them.)
On Stephen Malkmus, he sounds happy and at ease; the joy of creative freedom hums through these tracks. Perhaps that’s why he felt comfortable including ”Church on White,” the album’s best song and one of the few nakedly emotional statements Malkmus has made. It’s a meditative farewell to his friend Robert Bingham (the New York author and publisher who died of a drug overdose in 1999), a heartfelt ballad with a lyric nicked from Bauhaus and a lovely guitar hook that’s twisty and sloppy and classically Malkmusian in its artless inventiveness. In fact, the whole album is classic Malkmus, which, really, is all we ever wanted from him in the first place.