Voices carry

By MATT ASHARE  |  March 5, 2008

Stephen Malkmus never sounds like anyone other than Stephen Malkmus. Bands have copped a loose riff or two from the Pavement songbook or nicked a bit of their slacker anti-style, but I don’t know of anyone who’s been able to imitate Malkmus’s vaguely off-key delivery. Okay, there were those who claimed early on that Pavement themselves had borrowed liberally from the British post-punk band the Fall, but only real cultists would have noticed that. And once Pavement got past their lo-fi, Slanted and Enchanted beginnings, they began to resemble a fairly traditional rock band — guitar, bass, drums, vocals, all mostly in tune — who just happened to have an eccentric frontman. That’s facilitated Malkmus’s transition from bandleader to solo artist — after all, he brought with him two of the band’s more distinct traits, the songwriting and that voice. Rather than attempting a radical departure, he’s simply continued to delve deeper into the classic rock canon.

Real Emotional Trash, with its long, winding guitar solos, extended jams, and emphasis on shifting psychedelic guitar textures, is as retro an album as Malkmus has ever recorded. “Of all my stoned digressions/Some have mutated into the truth. . . . not a spoof,” he deadpans against a buzzing guitar as the album opens with “Dragonfly Pie.” It’s a typically cryptic Malkmus tune that mutates into a lengthy guitar solo full of distortion, wah-wah refrains, and notes that waver on the edge of feedback. The addition of Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss to a Jicks line-up that includes bassist Joanna Bolme and keyboardist Mike Clark has bolstered the rhythm section. And though there are still playfully skewed embellishments like the arrhythmic piano clusters that pepper a break in the otherwise hard-rocking “Hopscotch Willie,” the Jicks spend more time finding and then toying with the groove as Malkmus goes off on his guitar excursions. This is what your older brother (actually, your parents) would recognize as stoner rock, vintage late ’60s/early ’70s, especially when Clark locks into a groove on his Fender Rhodes while Malkmus works the wah-wah. It’s looser than the muscular stoner rock Josh Homme’s been churning out with Queens of the Stone Age and other projects for the past decade, but they’re smoking the same weed.

That’s not the case with the new project from Dulli and Lanegan. As the name — a wry twist on Mick and Keith’s Glimmer Twins moniker — suggests, the Gutter Twins are into darker, heavier stuff. The two singers may seem like strange bedfellows. The Trees were a psychedelic grunge band through and through. The Whigs worked to find a balance between angst-ridden rock and the classic soul and Motown that’s one of Dulli’s great loves. When it worked, particularly on their 1993 debut for Elektra (after getting their start on Sub Pop), the Whigs were sublime, as Dulli strutted through sharp hooks, serrated guitars, and muscular grooves that complemented his tales from the dark side of romance. When it didn’t, Dulli sounded like an ass, straining for a kind of sexual healing that wasn’t a natural fit. Where Dulli and Lanegan found common ground was in the blues and gospel they both delved into outside of their main bands. Beginning in 1997, Dulli founded a band, the Twilight Singers, who were better suited to mixing gospel and blues into his rock, as he used his tortured soulfulness to key in on something close to the vibe of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”

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