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Off the Pavement 

Stephen Malkmus is on a new road with The Jicks.

Sometimes, as someone who writes about music, I find I simply can't write about artists who I have too much invested in, artists who have in some way changed my life. I usually find that I have far too much to say to fit into however many column inches I've been allotted, so I tend to under-write, knowing that's the only way to make it fit, but leaving out crucial details (as I likely have here). I've tried it before and completely bungled articles (Cheap Trick, for example), and in other cases, avoided it altogether, assigning another writer to cover a band that I love.

Such was the case with Pavement when the band played its two shows here, in 1997 at Club Congress, and in 1999, on their last tour, at the Rialto. I had to opt out, as I had been obsessed with the band, and specifically, with its by-then-primary singer/guitarist/songwriter, Stephen Malkmus.

The obsession began when I found myself fortunate enough to see Pavement's first official tour, in Champaign, Ill., in 1992, complete with original drummer Gary Young, a comically entertaining, acid-fried hippie who had drumming style for miles and miles, and who would be kicked out soon after. The group had just released what has since become my pick for Best Album of the '90s, Slanted and Enchanted (1992), and following the show I couldn't stop listening to it, nor to the Perfect Sound Forever 10" that had preceded it.

The music was produced in a style that would become known as lo-fi-crappy production values dictated by necessity (read: lack of cash), but the songs that dwelled beneath the murk were transcendent: reminiscent of bands like the Fall in their sloppy artiness and the Clean in their shambolic pop sensibility, but with their winding melodies, off-kilter arrangements, and lyrics literate enough to warrant explication, they were ultimately rendered sublime. The songs seemed to be shipped in from a parallel universe where rock and roll music could still make you think and bob your head at the same time, without irony, though their songs were loaded with it. Listening to Pavement, I felt like I knew something no one else did. They changed the way I listened to music in the same way that, say, Bob Dylan or the Sex Pistols, or even Kiss, had, and they remain the last band to do that for me.

Although, in the beginning, Malkmus and fellow singer/guitarist/songwriter Scott Kannberg were on equal footing in the Pavement dynamic (the band's other members were mostly added later, initially to enable them to tour), it was Malkmus' contributions that raised the band above all others of their era. Though his notes were often the last thing you'd expect a guitarist to play, they were always, somehow, the exact right notes in the exact right places, and who but Malkmus could pen the lines, "Lies and betrayals/Fruit-covered nails/Electricity and lust," sing them in such a cool, detached manner, and not lose you along the way?

The ensuing years brought more Pavement albums: the Watery, Domestic EP (1992), which whittled the best parts of Slanted down to a mere four songs; the sunny pop of the more professional sounding but still gorgeous Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994), which contained the band's biggest "hit," "Cut Your Hair"; the all-over-the-map Wowee Zowee (1995), still the group's most misunderstood album; the laid-back melancholy of Brighten the Corners (1997); and the reined-in glossiness of the Nigel Godrich-produced Terror Twilight (1999), which, tellingly, for the first time featured no songwriting credits for Kannberg.

(During those heady years I took in as many Pavement shows as I possibly could, at one point seeing two shows--an early one and a late one--in one night, at Chicago's Metro. And every chance I got, I pulled aside Malkmus to pick his brain. For the first several years he pretended to remember me, but always gave himself away with the line, "Your hair was different the last time I saw you," which I imagined was stock for the stalkers he didn't remember. At the Drag City Invitational, at Chicago's now defunct Lounge Ax, in 1993, I even got up the nerve to drag Malkmus into a photo booth with me--luckily, he'd just gotten stoned and put on his best game-face. After a while, though, he began not only remembering, but approaching me, which led to a series of interesting conversations, at least to me, the blathering fanboy. Contrary to the aloof manner in which he's been described, he was always friendly and forthright.)

After the band's 1999 Rialto show, one of Pavement's members told me they'd be taking an extended hiatus, but later that year they quietly disbanded.

Following Pavement's break-up, Kannberg formed a new band, Preston School of Industry, and devoted more time to the label he owns and operates, Amazing Grease, while Malkmus assembled a new backing band, the Jicks, in his current hometown of Portland, Ore. (There was seemingly a bit of love lost between the two, who grew up as childhood friends in Stockton, Calif. Malkmus, for his part, made the rather snarky comment that he needed a new band because his old band simply couldn't play his new compositions. Meanwhile, in Austin last month, I was witness to a conversation between Kannberg and a guy who initially didn't realize he was sitting with a former member of Pavement. When he did, he excitedly announced, "You guys are, like, my all-time favorite band! I met you at a Malkmus show at Irving Plaza, in New York," to which Kannberg dryly responded, "I've never been to a Malkmus show.")

Malkmus' self-titled first album with the Jicks (2001) bared only his name--reportedly a concession to Matador, his label--and essentially picked up where Pavement left off, though its playful songs about pirates ("The Hook"), neo-hippie love ("Jennifer and the Ess-Dog"), and Yul Brenner ("JoJo's Jacket") were more straight narratives than the often elliptical songs he penned for Pavement. Still, he found space for a heartfelt, beautiful ode to his deceased friend, writer Robert Bingham, in "Church on White," the album's high mark.

Last month, Matador released the follow-up, Pig Lib, this time credited to Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. And while there is no mistaking who the head Jick is, the album does, indeed, feel more like a family affair than the debut, with Mike Clark's added keyboard flourishes, significant backing vocals from bassist Joanna Bolme, drumming by John Moen (easily the most accomplished drummer Malkmus has recorded with), and more complex arrangements than those found on its predecessor. That album's sense of whimsy is, in spots, still there, in songs like the quasi-psychedelic seascape "(Do Not Feed the) Oyster," but the album's overall tone is a bit darker, which only makes the lighter songs--the rare sex romp that is "Vanessa From Queens," the drony-yet-breezy album-closer "Us"--stand out. He's also confident enough with his new bandmates to allow for extended instrumental interludes, most notably on "Witch Mountain Bridge" and "1% of One," the latter of which secures his inclusion in the AAGH--the Association of American Guitar Heroes.

Pig Lib is certainly not the best work of his career--a good starting point for novices is last year's reissue of Slanted and Enchanted, subtitled Luxe & Reduxe, and bumped up to two discs worth of outtakes, Peel sessions, live tracks, etc., in addition to the actual album--but it gets better with each listen, and when someone has already changed your life in the way Stephen Malkmus has mine, you're thankful for what you can get.

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