As the leader of Pavement, Stephen Malkmus cut a distinctive figure in the 1990s, capturing a good measure of the decade's slacker zeitgeist. Apart from Pavement, Malkmus retained many of these qualities -- there was no mistaking his California drawl, nor his winding guitar solos -- but he took formal chances with the records he released under his own name, beginning with his eponymous solo debut in 2001. Almost simultaneously he formed a supporting band called the Jicks, an outfit that allowed him to indulge in his jam band fantasies both on-stage and on record. The Jicks were a steady support for Malkmus throughout the 2000s and 2010s, particularly bassist Joanna Bolme and keyboardist/guitarist Mike Clark, who stayed with the band through a series of drummers and such acclaimed albums as 2008's Real Emotional Trash and 2018's Sparkle Hard. The group also provided him with a base from which he could take detours, such as his 2016 soundtrack to the Will Arnett series Flaked, his 2019 electronic album Groove Denied, and its 2020 folk-rock successor Traditional Techniques. After Pavement announced they were going on hiatus at the end of 1999, the status of one of America's finest indie rock bands was a mystery for the first half of 2000. It became clearer that summer, however, when it was revealed that both singer/songwriter/guitarists Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg were preparing solo albums. Malkmus was particularly busy during that time, performing new songs in Holland with Kim's Bedroom -- a one-off group that also included and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Jim O'Rourke -- and recording them at studios near his hometown of Portland, Oregon. Working with him were the Jicks, aka Portland indie rock veterans drummer/percussionist John Moen and bassist Joanna Bolme. Moen had played with the Fastbacks, the Dharma Bums, and his own group, the Maroons; Bolme played with the Minders and worked as an engineer at Jackpot Studios, where Pavement's Terror Twilight was demo'ed and parts of Malkmus' new project were recorded. Initially, Malkmus intended to release the album on his own or through a local label, but when his old label, Matador, received a copy, they agreed to release it. By the time Malkmus officially confirmed Pavement's breakup in the November 2000 issue of Spin magazine, Matador announced it was releasing the album -- originally titled Swedish Reggae and then changed to Stephen Malkmus -- in winter 2001. The Jicks made their live debut that January at New York's Bowery Ballroom and spent the rest of the winter and spring touring the U.K. and the U.S., including a gig at South by Southwest with labelmates Mogwai and the reunited Soft Boys. Former Pavement percussionist Bob Nastanovich acted as the Jicks' tour manager, and Elastica leader Justine Frischmann (another friend of Malkmus') joined the band as a guitarist for selected dates. On 2003's darker, trippier Pig Lib, the Jicks shared credit with Malkmus, reflecting the album's more band-like feel. Released in 2005, Face the Truth found Malkmus embracing domesticity with a whimsical feel missing from his work since Wowee Zowee; the album featured Malkmus with and without the Jicks, who also supported him on tour that summer. On 2008's Real Emotional Trash, the Jicks welcomed former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss into their fold, giving the album's psychedelic free-for-alls greater heft. Mirror Traffic followed in 2011, featuring Beck stepping in as producer and Weiss taking her last bow as the Jicks' drummer. Moving to Berlin just before the release of Mirror Traffic in 2011, Malkmus used this uprooting of his family as the catalyst for his sixth album. Returning to the studio in 2013, he enlisted the production skills of former Pavement live engineer Remko Schouten to record 2014's Wig Out at Jagbags. It would be four years before Malkmus and company put out another long-player, but in 2018 the band released Sparkle Hard, their seventh studio album. The LP was produced by Chris Funk of the Decemberists, and it included the lead single "Shiggy," the previously released "Middle America," and the Kim Gordon-featuring "Refute." Just a year later, Malkmus released Groove Denied, a largely electronic solo album. He delivered the album to Matador prior to Sparkle Hard, but the label decided to focus on a new Jicks record first, leading Malkmus to call the 2019 album Groove Denied. Malkmus shifted musical direction in 2020 with Traditional Techniques, a psych-folk album produced by Chris Funk and featuring Matt Sweeney on guitar.
© Heather Phares & Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
© Heather Phares & Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Alternative & Indie - Released May 24, 2005 | Matador
Considering the seemingly plainspoken title of his third solo album, plus the extracurricular knowledge that the former Pavement leader has settled down and is a first-time father, it would be easy to assume that Face the Truth is where Stephen Malkmus finally turns into a self-conscious adult, ironing out the kinks in his music, tempering his humor, and starts making classic rock records for Mojo readers. Frankly, such a leap backward toward respectability doesn't seem all that far-fetched in light of the meandering, monochromatic Pig Lib, which suggested that Malkmus was standing on the verge of becoming a modern-day Tony McPhee, churning out guitar jams to an ever more selective audience. Knee-jerk assumptions shouldn't always be trusted, however, since Face the Truth isn't plain or predictable at all: it's a vibrant return to form. Malkmus is making records as he did in the heyday of Pavement, treating the Jicks as a backing band that can contribute a little in the studio but is designed for the stage. He lays down most of the instrumental tracks himself, overdubs acoustic guitars, banjos, and sitars, dabbles in synths, and plays around with the mixes so they bend, twist, slur, and suddenly explode. Only on the misleading first single, "Post-Paint Boy" -- a sly swipe at modern art -- does he sound as conventional as he did on Pig Lib, but it's sharper than most of that record, and it acts as a good anchor to this gleefully excessive album. Malkmus is driven by the same mischievous spirit that fueled his first solo album, but where that record had a proudly impish, even silly, bent, Face the Truth has an air of mystery. It's not so much that Malkmus is inscrutable -- a criticism often lazily leveled against him -- but that he's made the album with the sole desire of amusing himself, indulging his whims in a way reminiscent of the wild detours of Wowee Zowee. But Face the Truth isn't just tighter than that album -- its 40 minutes zoom by -- it's concentrated, with each track packed until it's ready to burst. Yet for as indulgent as the oversaturated mixes are, they're never overstuffed: each instrument, each overdub, each blip and squawk is there for a reason, and no song, not even the epic eight-minute sprawl of "No More Shoes," lasts longer than necessary. One of Malkmus' greatest gifts as a record-maker has been his arrangements, which are initially bewilderingly dense, but they slowly unveil to revealing their intricacies so that on repeated plays it's easy to marvel at how the music crests and peaks. Those loose yet exacting arrangements were missing on the straight and narrow Pig Lib, but he's returned to that strength here while marrying it to a greater sense of sonic adventure, and it makes Face the Truth quite thrilling and rewarding. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo