'Traditional Techniques' Review: Stephen Malkmus's album is a brilliant organic blend of folk and fusion
Stephen Malkmus is one of the most revered names in the music industry today, having made his mark on the public consciousness as the eccentric frontman of the seminal indie rock band Pavement in the 1990s and thereafter with his wildly popular project The Jicks. Known for his catchy songs, witty wordplay and languid guitar pyrotechnics, Malkmus has made a name for himself over the years as a bonafide legend of the indie rock scene and a cult hero to music hipsters everywhere. He can singlehandedly take credit for inspiring a whole new generation of aspiring cool-cat singer-songwriters who immediately took to his refreshingly laidback, yet fiercely original approach to song composition.
So while we're used to Malkmus being refreshingly charming and amusingly bizarre in his musical choices, this new solo offering via Matador Records, the folk-fusion album 'Traditional Techniques' is certain to surprise and disarm even the most diehard Pavement fans. For one thing, it doesn't sound like anything like Pavement. Malkmus described it as "new phase folk music for new phase folks." The signature Malkmus drawl is certainly in full effect in this album though and admittedly, here and there the LP does tend to dip its toes into 'Wowee Zowee' waters, but other than that, this sounds like nothing we've ever heard the influential music icon ever attempt.
And we have to say we're loving the sounds of this new record. By blending folk music with traditional Indian classical instruments like the sitar and flute, Malkmus has succeeded in creating a trippy, organic sound that invites you in for a cup of magic mushroom matcha tea and then lets you lounge around on the futon while soaking in the glow of the setting sun. It's a super chill, ultra-modern sound from the indie rock guru and we really hope he continues to expand his reach in this new musical dimension he's managed to tap into.
The album opener, 'ACC Kirtan' starts off as a psychedelic folk tale, complete with strains of sitar, tabla, flute and chiming acoustic guitar - it sounds like Zakir Hussain and Anoushka Shankar had been invited to jam at length with Bob Dylan and it's definitely a beautiful introduction to this new, unexpected, glorious sound.
"Open your mind" urges Malkmus on the next track, 'Xian Man', which is a gorgeous number with its bottleneck slide guitar, Middle-Eastern scales and folk-country twang. "I'm Miles Davis better than any of you" quips Malkmus, who certainly hasn't lost any of his celebrated punny lyricism and quaint flow over the years.
'The Greatest Own in Legal History' features some sublime acoustic guitar passages and a soothing, psychedelic country vibe - think 'Norwegian Wood' done in the style of Willie Nelson. 'Cash Up' is another jangly outing into twangy, humming six-string territory and the lyrics resonate with the song's rustic, down-to-earth feel - "Cash up to what you know
/ I will be there / If you need a friend I will go / Into your farm / So much work to be done."
The Indian instruments are back in full force on one of the album's stand-out tracks, 'Shadowbanned', with its infectious melody, droning sitars and Malkmus' bouncing, whooping vocal delivery sitting comfortably astride the modulated spaceship sounds that emanate from within.
'What Kind Of Person' is a blissed-out, candid love song on what sounds like an acoustic guitar in booming drop-D tuning - the lyrics "What kind of person makes you feel beautiful forever?" are cradled by flutes, sitar licks and Malkmus's soft, caressing voice.
The appropriately named 'Flowin' Robes' resembles a gently flowing stream in the middle of a lush, abundantly green valley - it's probably the closest that Malkmus has ever come to sounding like an unburdened Wilco, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The song 'Brainwashed' is another delightful expedition into trippy acoustic jam territory and it has to be said that this is one of the more Pavement-sounding songs on the entire album.
'Signal Western' is a gently ambling, reverberant, introspective look at a relationship with a potential lover - "Who will you pick to colonize you?" go the quirky lyrics, which perfectly blend in with the mood of the song. The album's last track 'Amberjack' (we told you Malkmus was punny) is a euphoric, stellar, moving closer - a choir of sun-drenched echoes stretches out above us like a canopy while Malkmus reclines in his hammock in the woods, sagely advising us that "In a way, life's impossibly strange."
In a way, this whole album is impossibly strange. The Pavement singer seems to have plucked this soundscape seemingly out of the ether. The traditional, acoustic instruments and folksy-fusion genre-blending on this LP is a sonic curveball from the usually yelpy, electric frontman. We'd love to hear more of this rustic, pleasant, organic, ear-to-the-ground sound from Malkmus in the future.