ALBUM REVIEW: Traditional Techniques by Stephen Malkmus

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WRITTEN BY: Tim Shermer

If Stephen Malkmus needed to reinvent himself, he would have done it by now. The 52-year-old indie rock legend and former Pavement frontman has been on a tear since the widely celebrated band’s 1999 dissolution, cutting seven impressive albums with his new band the Jicks (most recently 2018’s Sparkle Hard) and two entirely more adventurous solo albums in the past year.  

On Traditional Techniques, released last Friday, Malkmus has gone completely acoustic for the first time, but the presence of his signature style—wry melodies, half-sensical lyrics, and all—is undeniable. With the Jicks, he’s been able to play alongside titans such as Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney fame; this time, he’s recruited an eclectic cast of supporting musicians, including Chris Funk (Decemberists), guitarist Matt Sweeney, and the Afghan rabab player Qais Essar.

Traditional Techniques opens with the dirge-like “ACC Kirtan,” which is perhaps the album’s most pronounced departure from the familiar and the Pavement-adjacent. Recalling the droning harmonies of the Near East and Indian raga, it’s the perfect introduction to a record where most tracks hover around the 60 beats-per-minute mark.

This release stands in complete contrast to Malkmus’s last project, 2019’s Groove Denied, an ode to electronica that was created largely on his laptop while splitting time between Berlin and Portland. It’s also his first album since the untimely suicide of his longtime friend and collaborator David Berman, frontman of the Silver Jews (with whom Malkmus played) and Purple Mountains.

Malkmus, Berman, and others including James McNew of Yo La Tengo studied and played in bands together at the University of Virginia in the mid-1980s, turning the Charlottesville scene into a global epicenter for “indie” music as we know it today. Before his Pavement days, Malkmus DJed at campus radio station WTJU and played in the lo-fi band Ectoslavia with Berman, McNew, and his future bandmate Bob Nastanovich. He later relocated to New York City and then his hometown of Stockton, California, where he ultimately formed Pavement and achieved worldwide cult fame in the ‘90s with records like Slanted and Enchanted and Wowee Zowee. Pavement have announced two reunion shows at summer festivals in Barcelona and Porto, Portugal in the coming months.

“What kind of person steals in reverse?” sings Malkmus on “What Kind of Person,” one of the album’s crown jewels and its most striking ballad. Lyrically, he’s doing what he’s always done best; instrumentally, the addition of flute and sitar in the second half of the track takes it to an altogether different level.

When Traditional Techniques is less tender, it feels like an extension of the sonic ideas explored with the Jicks on Sparkle Hard, which often featured a similar acoustic-leaning instrumentation. The upbeat lead single “Shadowbanned” and laid-back “Brainwashed” are nearly impossible to pinpoint as being among his newest work, but make no mistake: they fit seamlessly into this track list. Malkmus’s guitar solos—namely the outro of “Brainwashed”—are most reminiscent of his work on 2008’s Real Emotional Trash and Wowee Zowee.

Side 2 of the record slides back into a more familiar psych-folk sound: we hear shades of Jeff Tweedy and Devendra Banhart, but also downright trademark Malkmus on selections like “Flowin’ Robes” and “Signal Western.” His unorthodox, often syncopated rhyme schemes employed so often across the decades are exemplified on “Signal Western” (“I painted my ladder/Fuchsia, do nanoseconds matter”).

As Stephen Malkmus enters his fifth decade of working in music, he has proven with Traditional Techniques his sublime ability to effortlessly strike the balance between the familiar and the ambitious, while raising the degree of difficulty by opting to unplug. 

Tracklist:

  1. ACC Kirtan
  2. Xian Man
  3. The Greatest Own In Legal History
  4. Cash Up
  5. Shadowbanned
  6. What Kind Of Person
  7. Flowin’ Robes
  8. Brainwashed
  9. Signal Western
  10. Amberjack

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