At some point in the past decade, the distinction “King of Indie Rock” became more or less synonymous with Stephen Malkmus. It’s a weighty title to be sure, especially in a genre that pretends not to take itself too seriously (though we’re not fooled anymore). But truth be told, the honor is unquestionably deserved. While captaining Pavement, Malkmus shaped the way an entire generation of underground music fans listened, thought, dressed, whined and acted. More recently, he has extended his streak with a series of three widely celebrated solo offerings.

Patti Behler
Stephen Malkmus is so cool he knew who Stephen Malkmus was before he ever joined Pavement. (Courtesy of Matador)

With those royal credentials in his back pocket and a well-fitted crown on his head, Malkmus has now thrown to his subjects the fourth record to carry his name. Real Emotional Trash is unmistakably the work of a king. It broadcasts the confidence and conviction of an album that knows its audience members will be receptive because they have to be. Malkmus isn’t really challenging himself on Real Emotional Trash, nor has he exercised the executive privilege of solo indulgence like he did on Face the Truth, but he’s relied on the trust of his loyal subordinates to stretch way out, because, in the end, he knows his cult will still bow to its king.

Prog rock and guitar jams have never exactly been surefire cornerstones for success when trying to win over the indie-rock crowd, but obviously Malkmus’s stature is much too great to restrict him to anyone’s shallow expectations. After flirting with extended guitar passages and adjusted rock structures on previous releases, Malkmus and his band the Jicks now finally jump headfirst into the progressive pond and it’s up to the listener to keep pace. Still, Malkmus will always be unified by the eloquent instability of his melodies, the puzzling non-meanings of his magnificent free association lyrics and his increasingly astounding guitar talent. It may have all the old tricks, but Real Emotional Trash is a new dog, and it has bite.

The opening pairing of “Dragonfly Pie” and “Hopscotch Willie” is a crash course in the unrelenting, frenetic energy that dictates most of the album’s direction. Former Sleater-Kinney member Janet Weiss, making her first studio appearance drumming for the Jicks, brings a new spark to the band with her consistently pronounced and urgent beats. She’s led the band away from many of its pop tendencies and into much heavier territory. Malkmus’ riffs last for minutes on end between choppy verses and false endings, while oscillating synthesizers and second guitar parts fight for their share of the mix.

Nearly every song on the album premiered live more than a year ago, and the lessons learned on the road are shown in the recording. Two essentially distinct songs joined by a Grateful Dead-style crescendoing guitar jam segue, “Real Emotional Trash” would’ve been a 10-minute failure had it been borne out of studio meditation and quickly laid to tape. Instead, every languid buildup, every shambolic breakdown and every sideways lick in between bears the obvious maturity of a song that, despite its great complexity, might as well be “Louie Louie.” At this point, the Jicks sound like they could thrash out a hair-raising performance of it with their eyes closed.

Even when the prog/jam mold is broken, Malkmus is on top of his game. “Gardenia” is the token pop ditty, and although it is severely overshadowed by the sheer potency of the rockers, it’s at least the equal of “Phantasies” from Malkmus’s solo debut. He could probably drop a stellar album of songs firmly in the same vein, but given how easy it seems for him to write them, its not surprising he’s moving away.

“We Can’t Help You,” on the other hand, is a stylistic outlier that finds Malkmus navigating completely uncharted waters. He steps into the back porch world of relaxed folk rock and hits the mark. The rollicking piano that leads the way draws vivid shades of The Band and indicates a fertile future course for Malkmus, should he choose to take it.

But for now, Real Emotional Trash offers a prospect just as exciting: the chance to catch a glimpse of, yes, the best artist of this generation exploring a territory unfortunately too foreign to him. With the Jicks serving as the springboard Pavement could never be, Malkmus can finally let his guitar run wild for as long as and whenever he chooses.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Real Emotional Trash

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