Stephen Malkmus Tries Out a New Voice on Traditional Techniques
After dipping a toe into electronica, the Pavement frontman is experimenting in folkMusic Reviews Stephen Malkmus
Since his Pavement heyday, Malkmus has strolled down myriad musical avenues trying to distinguish his voice (but not literally—his signature stilted inflection remains) from his past sound. His career trajectory honestly isn’t all that different than Paul McCartney’s, whose desire to be taken seriously as a solo artist has led to a decades-long career with plenty of highs and lows (though “Wonderful Christmastime” does not deserve nearly as much flak as it gets). 2019 saw Malkmus take a left-turn into electronica on Groove Denied and now, at the precipice of this new decade, he decided to return to the guitar-heavy material of his work with The Jicks, this time exploring folk on Traditional Techniques. The results can be classified as mixed to mildly pleasant. Essentially, Malkmus saw the variety of instruments available at Halfling Studio in Portland, Ore. and decided to try out as many of them as possible. It’s like tuning into a dad’s jam room, but on steroids.
“ACC Kirtan” and “Shadowbanned” are the most ambitious departures on the album, as Malkmus confidently strides into the world of Middle Eastern instruments, including Afghani ones. The former is more effective, in part due to better lyrics (the quiet, nonsensical poetry of “The Duraflame’s wet / The ganache won’t set / Where are the rings for my sweet serviettes,” for example) and his ethereal harmonies with Portland-based musician Joy Pearson. All of the album’s lyrics are just as off-kilter as you’d expect from Malkmus, but those from “Shadowbanned” are so contrived as to be detrimental (potentially, in vintage Malkmusian form, on purpose). If he sings “All hail the once and future kween / May the word be spread via cracked emojis” and you don’t immediately want to shed your skin from secondhand embarrassment, then I applaud you.
On “ACC Kirtan” (kirtan is a Sanskrit word referring to devotional singing), Malkmus and Pearson’s voices soar, buoyed by bubbling percussion and shimmering strings. They combine to paint such a serene picture that you’ll half expect to wake up under a starry sky in Joshua Tree by the end.
The rest of the record, though, veers closer to a fusion of Americana, indie folk and soft rock elements. That’s not to say it’s bad—many of the songs evoke the same cozy feeling as Yo La Tengo tunes—but it’s not nearly as revolutionary as Malkmus would like to think it is. “Xian Man” proves itself worthy as a single, with a jaunty electric guitar hook thumping over acoustic guitar lines and syllabically punchy lyrics like “fall into my act you will never take flak for my blackjack stacks no more” that bring the snappiness home. Others, though, tend to pleasantly blend from one into next, like “What Kind of Person” and “Flowin’ Robes,” but at least the former shows a bit of experimentation when a flute wanders in for a wistful solo.
Listening to these songs, one can’t help but wonder what sort of recognition they would receive if the artist wasn’t an indie rock veteran with years of credentials behind him. Likely, they would be a blip on the music radar, though an enjoyable one. But Malkmus isn’t your run-of-the-mill guy sitting on a stool, guitar in hand. Fans of folk and Malkmus alike will find something to love here, even if Traditional Techniques doesn’t quite make the grade.
Revisit Stephen Malkmus’ 2009 solo show at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall: