When the brains and heart of one of the '90s most influential indie rock bands ventures out on his own, expectations are bound to run high. Maybe that's unfair. But it can't be helped.
On Stephen Malkmus' first sans Pavement outing, his new instrumental unit (with Portland scene vets John Moen and Joanna Bolme) backs him with transparency. Though he long ago traded in excessively angular indulgences in favor of a more linear song structure, the tunes here seem to cross further into accessibility than ever before. Lyrically as well, there seems to be a marked shortage of memorable Pavement-esque non-sequiturs and pointed jabs. I found myself longing for either the stinging irony that made Slanted and Enchanted such an intellectual knockout or the deep emotional investment that made Terror Twilight so heartbreakingly beautiful.
Malkmus has always walked the fence between brilliant and silly and on much of this, he topples over into the latter.
"Phantasies" is bursting with an almost unbearable lightness. In "Jo Jo's Racket" he trades places with Yul Brynner. The strait-faced "The Hook" appears to be a completely allegory-less tale about coming of age with a group of Turkish pirates. And the toy piano qand synth effects in "Troubbble" are cute but -- god, a lyrical hook out of the phrase: "we spell trouble"? Ack.
There are standouts, of course, that make it all worthwhile including "Church on White" with its loping melodic bass line and tender vocals ("All you ever wanted, was everything"). "Jenny and the Ess-Dog" is a wonderful, charming ditty about an unlikely love affair. The reverb-drenched chorus of "Deado," the album closer, elicits chills.
Ultimately (and not too surprisingly), the album comes across sounding transitional, with Malkmus' sharp wit and uncanny melodic sense in search mode. A rest stop on the road to something more engaging? We are filled with hope.