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Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011

Reading Stephen Malkmus

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Perhaps the most quintessentially Pavement show Stephen Malkmus ever performed in Milwaukee wasn't actually with Pavement, but rather with his current band The Jicks. The group was on tour behind its 2003 sophomore album Pig Lib, an awesome, tangled mess of a record, when they played an unannounced all-Pavement set at the Todd Wehr Auditorium. Malkmus looked right at home revisiting the songs he had ostensibly retired; the rest of his Jicks, not so much. In good spirits but at times visibly flustered, they fumbled their way through the 19 songs they'd learned just for a one-off performance. It was the perfect visual representation of Pavement, or at least as perfect as one that didn't actually include Pavement could be: a band toiling as they followed the idiosyncratic whims of their restless leader.

With Pavement, Malkmus often played as if he was trying to shake the rest of his band, and the tension created by a group straining to dial into their frontman's elusive wavelength helped create the band's distinct, fidgety dynamic. One of the unexpected joys of Pavement's laid-back reunion tour last year was seeing how little that dynamic had changed. A couple of times during the band's performance at the Pabst Theater last September, Malkmus abruptly broke from the set list without giving his band mates notice, expecting them to humor his impulse. They did.

It's unlikely that at this point Malkmus will ever completely break those presumptuous old habits, but during his time with The Jicks he has become more aware of them. He admits that he's sometimes a hard frontman to read—ask Jicks bassist Joanna Bolme about working with him and “she'd tell you some crazy stories,” he says. “She understands me now, but it took her a while”—but he says he's making more of an effort to be a team player.

“I'm more aware of trying to play to the rest of the band, instead of being the leader in charge, which I did a little more in Pavement,” Malkmus says. “Now I actually listen to the drummer, for instance—you know, the things that you're supposed to do when you're in a band.”

That group approach is apparent on his fifth and latest album with The Jicks, Mirror Traffic, his most agreeable, pop-conscious record since his 2001 self-titled post-Pavement debut. It has none of the selfish, run-on guitar solos of 2008's Real Emotional Trash, or any of the capricious, obstacle-littered arrangements of Pig Lib. This time he doesn't put any distance between himself and his band. Recorded in a productive five days in Los Angeles with Beck, who prettied up the songs with some unobtrusive flourishes and gave the record a warm, analog sound, Malkmus describes it as one of the quickest, easiest albums he's ever recorded.

“Even with [Real Emotional Trash], there was the sense we were building this monolith,” he says. “And with Pig Lib, we were in the studio for three weeks, getting cabin fever, creating this atmosphere that was cool, but it was sort of a Homeric journey. Well, maybe it wasn't that hard—it wasn't like some Pink Floyd album. But for this record, we just kept things more alive. We went to a more expensive studio with a more expensive guy and just did it fast, while we were fresh. It was more of an 800-yard race than a half-marathon. You can get some good results from that. It just depends on if the band is prepared and if your arrangements are solid, and I think they were.”

That fast approach required compromise. “There were more mistakes left in there than some albums that I've done,” Malkmus notes. The tight schedule also left him less time to perfect the guitar solos that increasingly had become his raison d'être on recent albums. “I would normally spend more time doubling guitar solos, or playing them over and over again until I got something I liked,” he says, “but this was all live in the studio. It wasn't hanging around in your basement in Pro Tools, tweaking and retooling and second-guessing.”

He did have an opportunity to tweak the record, though. The Jicks had tracked Mirror Traffic shortly before Pavement's long tour, but didn't finalize it until afterward, when Malkmus and Bolme flew back to L.A. to re-record some vocals and clean up some tracks. They opted against using most of the overdubs from those auxiliary sessions.

“We just kept coming back to the basic takes, because it sounded glued together otherwise,” he says. “When the songs are a little loose and you play over them to tighten them, it just gets worse, and they begin crumbling. Imagine those old Bob Dylan records: If you try to have somebody play over those tracks again, they would start sounding like a jumble, or a puzzle where the pieces don't fit right anymore. It's best just to leave them loose.”

Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks play the Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday, Oct. 7, with openers Holy Sons. Doors open at 8 p.m.