In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never really listened to Pavement. A friend played me some of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain once and it was cool, I guess, but I certainly can’t claim (in any honest way – we’ve learned over the last 8 years in this country that you can claim anything you want) a deep and abiding passion for Pavement. Having said that, I definitely dug Face the Truth and when I heard that Malkmus was dropping something called Real Emotional Trash this year, I got pretty excited.
Despite some critical claims that Stephen Malkmus is turning into an aging jam band hippie – a claim made by critics who have either never heard a Television album or never understood one – Real Emotional Trash is not what Pitchfork derisively refers to as “Dad rock” (they use that term for Wilco’s stuff a lot and I think they’re full of shit) or jam band music. It’s simply a great rock record. It’s a matter of what you like in an album – if you look at their “literary” canon over at P-fork, they’re prone to loving shit with lots of beeps and blips in it; in fact, if you got a German guy to record an hour of himself fucking a laptap over percussion made entirely from the sound of a hand stroking a dick, it stands to deductive reason that that record would play well to the Pitchfork crew. To be fair, I like some bleepy-blippy music (P-fork was right about DJ Matthew Herbert, for instance) but I’m more prone to liking loud guitars, heavy drums, and stuff like that. Neither I nor Pitchfork is 100% right – it’s a subjective choice. Now, if you’re like me, and you like to hear someone who can play the guitar well in a meaningful way (as opposed to playing the guitar well in a meaningless way, which is what Joe Satriani does – he’s the Kenny G of the guitar), you will like Stephen Malkmus and you will rate Real Emotional Trash very highly indeed.
“Dragonfly Pie” kicks off the set and it’s not as entirely nonsensical as the title might have you believe. Malkmus sings, “Of all my stoned digressions/ some have mutated into the truth,” and the song (and, arguably, the album) proceeds to tear off on a stoned digression that, where it doesn’t always mutate into truth, it certainly hits high points for beauty. Real Emotional Trash is the debut album for Janet Weiss as an official Jick. Janet Weiss was formerly the very kickass drummer for Sleater-Kinney (speaking of great rock records, listen to SK’s The Woods – holy shit, what a great record) and is now the very kickass drummer for Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks. Weiss keeps the beat moving right along while Malkmus noodles away on his guitar and implores you: “Point me in the direction/ of your real emotional trash”.
The guitar tone on “Dragonfly Pie” actually caused one of my friends to ask, upon hearing it, “Is that Jimi Hendrix?” Now, Malkmus is no Hendrix, mind you (who the fuck is? John Mayer? Not a fucking chance!), but the man can play like a motherfucker and he’s proven an adept and engaging story-teller as a songwriter. Real Emotional Trash spans the stories of whatever “Dragonfly Pie” is about (someone who is “cursed to be named after jazz songs”) to a guy who may or may not (probably did) commit a murder to someone who is in love with a soldier from Baltimore. All the while, Malkmus’s guitar soars, Weiss’s drums pound, and each time you go through this album, it gets better.
Malkmus and his Jicks do play out on a few of the tracks (fully half of them are over the five minute mark and “Real Emotional Trash” stretches out over ten), but the instrumental breaks fit the songs much more organically than the noodley, rambling jams of a Phish or Grateful Dead or any of those shred guys. Malkmus is following the song where it takes him and his band is good enough to make the journey with him. There’s a difference between playing the guitar to prove you’re good at playing the guitar (Satriani, Steve Vai, and that Swedish fuck Yngwie Malmsteen) and playing the guitar because you can make big, joyous, rock ‘n’ roll noises with it (Tad Kubler, Jack White, and Stephen Malkmus). Horrible albums are made by technically proficient musicians whose music is an excuse for them to shred pentatonic scales (or noodle around on soprano saxophones, for that matter, Mr. G) or what-have-you. Great rock albums don’t have to be made by people who suck at playing their instruments (in fact, fewer albums should be made by people who suck at playing their instruments), but they have to have an emotional fire to them. On Real Emotional Trash, some of the best guitar moments are relatively simple – slides up and down the neck on the gorgeous title track or the thunderous opening riff of “Dragonfly Pie.” But they suit the pieces in which they appear and they make Real Emotional Trash a damn fine rock record by one of the last true talents in rock music. Malkmus has been around long enough to be considered (by some) an elder statesman of Indie Rock, whatever that means. Whatever he is, he rocks. So get off his lawn and go get his record.