Stephen Malkmus Retreats Into an Earthy Headspace for ‘Traditional Techniques’
Stephen Malkmus is the quintessential indie artist, defying convention in a way that becomes a convention of itself. Amateurism becomes a practiced art, and DIY dogma guides peculiarly idiosyncratic indulgences that manage to strike a chord with the masses despite all odds. Since the halcyon days of the era-defining Pavement, Malkmus has kept busy, releasing sprawling, ambitious albums with his primary band, the Jicks, and a wealth of other whimsical projects. Last year, he took inspiration from his days in Berlin with the synth pop-influenced “Groove Denied.” Releasing records at an alarming rate, he returns with an equally unanticipated project, “Traditional Techniques.” For the new album, Malkmus teams up with Decemberists multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, Chavez/Zwan guitarist Matt Sweeney, and Afghan rabab player Qais Essar. The result is a wildly original recording that combines an erudite fluency with folk traditions with a madcap mashup of global sounds, and Malkmus’ distinctie touch.
“ACC Kirtan” is a thrilling hodgepodge of world sounds, with rustic open chords and plucky banjo juxtaposed with sitar-style drones and jokey, kung fu movie eastern motifs. At once, this sounds like an art project from someone with perhaps a little too much time on his hands. The designedly casual manner in which everything is executed reaffirms this idea. By the end, the music has swelled to immersive proportions. Southern belle singers join Malkmus for lines like “Where are the rings for my sweet serviettes?” At once, it’s clear that the ever enigmatic Malkmus is at his most smirkingly insular on this record. “Xian Man” strips down the madcap United Nations, and brings some rhythm into the mix, taking a particularly bluesy turn. One thing that always set Malkmus apart from his contemporaries in the indie sphere is a distinctly southern manner that made its way into the music, and especially bares itself in this tune. Of course, you would expect this song to be about a man from the Xian province of China, but Malkmus, clever wordsmith that he is, has thrown a curveball. The title is pronounced “Christian man,” and the phrase welcomes a wealth of musical associations, folk vocal harmonies and all the rest, delivered over slickly unraveling guitar figures in shifting time signatures, with shimmering fiddling, and darting bends that build into overindulgent soloing.
Malkmus declutters the mix, and dons an unaffected, wide eyed persona for “The Greatest Own In Legal History.” His crackling voice, over the minimal, designedly shabby instrumentation makes for an especially emotive demonstration. There’s plenty of steel guitar, and a tambourine keeps the pace, giving a pricelessly retro feel. The musical refrain is an intricate, cascading figure. The song appears to be a humorous indictment of the music industry, with lines like “if you really want to bum it, I got spreadsheets on that stuff.” Malkmus nails it. “Cash Up” lingers in this headspace, pushing the limits of silliness with an opening line of “Cash up to what you know.” At this point, it’s simply idiotic, a warning of the dangers that you risk when indie proclivities are allowed free reign. Prominently featured is a droning tone that sounds like cows mooing, especially amid the shabbily coordinated hillbilly mismash.
There could hardly be a better titled song to capture the zeitgeist than “Shadowbanned,” and Malmus’ lyrics are characteristically opaque. The song begins like desolate Spaghetti Western fare, with call and response riffs, and then Malkmus enters as something of a meta caricature. Thank heavens for “bad” singing. The track finds the band with some spring in their step, to exhilarating ends. They play under a constant psychedelic gauze, and give way to intense crescendos and instrumental work that mimics something like birds chirping. Malmus’ voice cracks on cue, and he sings the titular phrase in the same tune as opening guitar lick, atop perfectly messy fiddling, letting out utterances of “Ha” in echoing trails, as he throws out lines that effortlessly capture the curiosities of a post-digital age, for instance “I’m praying for a multiverse” and “Drip gush drip data-driven skip / To the part where the left bros parody TED Talks.” Best of all, he concludes, “May the word be spread via cracked emoji.”
”What Kind of Person” features rich, expansive guitars, strummed a little under the natural, expected tempo, alongside an insufferable flute, seemingly included to emphatically pronounce, “Yes, we are joking.” Considering the refrain, “What kind of person / Makes you feel beautiful forever,” the music is just perfect, framing the song as a lighthearted mockery of romantic idealism and all associated sentiments. There’s an Asian wake up call fiddle, and bits of Malkmus curling his voice like Bob Dylan after a game of telephone. “Flowin’ Robes” follows, and first of all, what a name. There’s an early Radiohead feel to the chord progression and structure, which should come as no surprise as Thom Yorke has cited Pavement as an influence, and even included Malkmus’ “I’ve Hardly Been” on one of his “Office Chart” playlists. This song nods to the Syd Barrett strain of folk, with odd time signatures, mumblecore baritone bits, and lackadaisical acoustic strumming that gains traction and launches off, in an example of superb, unaffected songwriting, showcasing a mastery of dynamics. The instruments blend together, then bare themselves coyly, only to vanish and start again at the beginning of the cycle.
“Brainwashed” is a dragging, ramshackle jamboree. If only you could put your finger on the pulse, Einstein would nod. Creaking guitars are balanced by light soulful keys, and bare the weight of Malkmus’ jaded drawl. Near the end, a tone somewhere between distorted guitar and horns enters, stuttering and morphing like the stuff of dubstep sound design. Malkmus has a knack for zeroing in on the cultural consciousness for fleeting moments with oblique, elusive statements that leave the listener to fill in dotted lines. On “Signal Western,” he sings, “Potential friend of my daughter / Learn how they bend truth, all of us do,” before dropping such vagaries as “Nobody wants to decolonize you.” The fluency with which the band operates is remarkable, an exercise of controlled chaos. The stripped-down arrangement emphasizes Malmus’ fragile voice, and achieves a haunting immediacy. Finally, “Amberjack” ends with laconic, reflective musings in real time, delivered through tongue-in-cheek folk cliches. Upon the second verse, subdued, low-register choirs enter around Malkmus’ increasingly distorted voice, building to the vaguely enlightened reckoning, “This amberjack, let’s throw it back.”
Stephen Malkmus has based his entire career on throwing caution to the wind, and following his instincts. His musical lexicon is vast, and his lyricism is of the highest ranks, while his presentation has always been fashionably sloppy. He never ceases to surprise and impress, with his increasingly absurd projects. “Traditional Techniques” is Malkmus’ folk record, an undertaking that realizes latent proclivities that stretch back to his Pavement days. The absurd ensemble of musicians on the record makes for a stunningly original take on classic sounds, while Malkmus’ musical and lyrical explorations alternate between throwaway humor and poetic insights. The latest album is yet another dense and original addition to his rich catalogue.
“Traditional Techniques” is available March 6 on Apple Music.