Every touring rock star deals with sarcastic audience requests. Very few deal with them like Stephen Malkmus, who, when asked to perform an Oasis song at a recent New York City show, deadpanned, "Sounds like we have some Vassar people here tonight." As lead singer and guitarist of Pavement--one of the most influential indie rock bands of the '90s--Malkmus was a hero to the college nerdoisie with his wry humor, obtuse lyrics and a string of critically lauded albums that failed nobly at the cash register. Pavement broke up last year, and Malkmus has wasted little time in recording a solo album, Stephen Malkmus (Matador), which arrives in stores this week.
"They're really simple ditties, by my standards," says Malkmus, 33, of the album's dozen songs. "They're not as simple as Blink 182 or something, but it's just a couple of chords." He's half right. Unlike the music of Pavement, which often defined itself by taking a couple of chords and finding the loopiest way possible to descend into chaos, Stephen Malkmus is instantly catchy, though still weird enough to satisfy the cult. The song Jo Jo's Jacket is a vague tribute to Yul Brynner, and The Hook may be the first indie-rock pirate chantey. That aside, Malkmus has grown as a songwriter. Jenny and the Ess-Dog is a churning rocker that chronicles a doomed hippie romance, while Church on White, written for his late friend, the novelist Robert Bingham, has Malkmus genuinely emoting: "All you ever wanted/ was everything/ and everything/ plus the truth/ I only poured you/ half a life." It's the saddest, prettiest song in a career so far marked by cynicism, and one hopes it's a hint of what is to come.
--By Josh Tyrangiel