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More than a feeling
Stephen Malkmus reveals himself on Face the Truth
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Stephen Malkmus' official Web site

Stephen Malkmus moves past Pavement by Jeff Ousborne

Stephen Malkmus almost beat up a hippie. He tells me about it when I call him at home to talk about his third solo album, Face the Truth (Matador). In Malkmusís fleeting, impressionistic, noncommittal way, the album confronts many of the circumstances of his private life, including the hippie subculture that permeates his new and very Pacific home town of Portland, Oregon. After all, the albumís centerpiece is the eight-minute extended-guitar-jam rave-up "No More Shoes," which is by turns reminiscent of í60s English folk rock and traditional Indian music and includes such tenderly delivered lines as "Iranian gown on your frame."

"Yeah, I donít mind hippies," admits Malkmus. "Except when they say stupid stuff like theyíre glad that the World Trade Center fell, or that we deserve this, or something. That happened here when I was in this grocery store; this dumb hippie said that. Because there are some really dumb 20-year-olds ó I sound like a conservative now ó but theyíre future burdens to the tax system. Sometimes they really irritate me." This particular irritation had Malkmus "ready to go jock on him and put him against the wall. But then I realized . . . I was just shocked and . . . I just left. There we go!"

Actually, Malkmus, who plays the Paradise this Monday, has made a fine art of not going there for some 15 years now. Even in his most punk and disorderly moments fronting Pavement in the í90s or leading his back-up band the Jicks in the 2000s, heís almost always put brains before brawn. Pavementís inscrutable irony was a distancing device from a rock-and-roll demi-monde that Malkmus only partly subscribes to. That distance may have helped Pavement travel their life arc more gracefully and beguilingly than any other band of the alt-rock era. And now, it may be helping the solo artist navigate his own life arc as a mature musician and a brand new dad. (Daughter Lottie was born in February to girlfriend Jessica Hutchins, a visual artist who came up with the typically primitive, offhand cover art.) As he puts it, "I like soft, melodic music, but I also like to go off a bit."

Face the Truth goes off a lot. Two of the albumís first three cuts are annoying skronk, "Pencil Rot" zapping the ears with wheezing electronic sound effects and "Iíve Hardly Been" dropping its foxtrot beat like a gallows march. The rest of the disc is eclectic, with fake disco here, fake Simon and Garfunkel there, and fake vocals electronically chopped and distorted everywhere. As head-scratching critics have already complained, itís Malkmusís weirdest solo venture yet, and probably his most disorienting release since Pavementís swan song, Terror Twilight, the first album in which he extended his love of free-associating experimentation beyond the bounds of art punk and into the thornier terrain of art rock.

By now, however, that 1999 release sounds almost as rich in Malkmusís white-boy flow as any Pavement album before it, and in time so may Face the Truth. Even in its jarring first third, it counters the noise with the soaring "It Kills" and the lilting "Freeze the Saints." The latter is as sweet as the Pavement classics "Range Life" and "Shady Lane," but it seems far more personal in its lyric about convincing a hesitant lover to learn to languish. "I wasnít just imagining something that someone might feel, I guess," Malkmus laughs. "But sometimes it might just be a couple of lines that are that, and then you get going on a roll, and it does become more than a feeling. And then youíre Boston." Heís referring to the band, not the city.

If nothing else, the personal moments work as a hedge against becoming a freeze-dried act like Boston. After all, Terror Twilight also marked the point at which Malkmusís compassion started to slide. His first solo album was buoyed by his new-found freedom, but his second, Pig Lib, slipped deeper into emotional complacency. So maybe itís healthy sign that he put the Jicks at armsí length here and recorded much of Face the Truth himself, with help from drummer John Moen and Shins producer Phil Ek. He was, he says, "trying to channel the spirit" of the slew of home-recorded albums from the í70s and í80s released at www.hyped2death.com. "I try to get inspired by things I havenít heard yet." As they say, it keeps you hanging on.

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks headline this Monday, June 6, at the Paradise Rock Club, 967 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston; call (617) 228-6000.

Issue Date: June 3 - 9, 2005
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