Well, Pavement is no more. All hopes for an open-ended "hiatus" seemingly dashed, according to recent interviews. But Stephen Malkmus has returned with an eponymous solo record on Matador, which--all things considered--might just be the best Pavement record since Crooked Rain. While billed as a solo project (at the insistence of Matador--right down to the dreamy portrait photo on the cover), Malkmus, with his new band The Jicks, doesn't take any drastic departures from his proven musical recipe. All the ingredients that made Pavement great are still here: his deadpan-yet-evocative delivery of cleverly abstract lyrics, musical flourishes which sound deliciously sloppy yet are obviously carefully crafted, and a sort of cerebral undertone that tempts the listener to "get" the references so as to prove his/her post-punk/indie-rock IQ.
Jicks members Joanna Bolme (The Minders, Spinanes) and John Moen (Spinanes, Heatmiser, Maroons) collaborate with Malkmus to craft melodic structures that draw equally from classic rock and post-punk influences. Most notably, the songs here are tighter and less likely to wander off into the sloppy self-indulgence that plagued the last few Pavement records. "Church On White" and "Pink India" are thoughtful semi-acoustic ballads, dripping with Malkmus' signature sincerity and charm. But the strongest moments on this CD come when he combines his rhetorical storytelling muscle with hooks that could choke a marlin, evident on such tracks as "Jo Jo Jackets" (sung from the point-of-view of actor Yul Brynner) and "The Hook," which traces the adventures of a kidnapped Mediterranean youth who eventually becomes a pirate captain. Perhaps the signature song on Stephen Malkmus would be "Jenny and The Ess Dog," a biting observation of the trans generational romantic pratfalls between an aging rocker and his teenage girlfriend, told with classic Malkmus deadpan charm: "She's 18/ He's 31/ She's a rich girl/ He's the son/ of a Coca-Cola middle-man/ They kiss when they listen to 'Brothers In Arms'/ And if there's something wrong with this/ They don't see the harm."
Pavement always seemed like a delicate balance of musical styles; Malkmus with his melodies and hooks contrasted with the noisier refrains from Scott Kannberg and Bob Nostanovich. It was a glorious give and take that finally took too much. Here, freed from the compromises of collaboration, Malkmus seems as if he is having fun again. On this "solo" record, he has staked his claim to a promising post-Pavement legacy. Guess we'll have to wait and see on Kannberg, Nastanovich and the rest.