Stephen Malkmus

Look hard enough and you can see Stephen Malkmus smiling on the inside of his first solo album. He smirks, too -- ever heard a Pavement record? -- but by the time he gets to the sparkling "Jenny and the Ess-Dog," he's practically beaming, finally brushing the hair out of his face and singing about a man and a woman separated by age, distance, and education sliding away from each other. It's a great song -- fruity like Pavement's "Cut Your Hair," buttery like "Spit on a Stranger," funny like "Range Life" -- but what I like most about it is how committed Malkmus is. For what may be the first time in his ten years of making records, he sounds like he really means it, like he likes the story better than the joke.

That's what most differentiates Stephen Malkmus from the stack of records he made with Pavement, the band of California grad-school slackers with whom Malkmus invented indie rock. Terror Twilight, the band's final studio album, saw Malkmus drifting, like his apparently beloved Ess-Dog, away from his chums and the buzzing racket they made, toward a mellowed, classic rock­tinted brand of West Coast pop flavored by the zillion books and the million CCR tapes cluttering his bedroom floor. Free of the obligation of making nice with his buds, he's made good on that promise, jettisoning the lyrical obscurity and guitar distortion behind which he used to hide, instead penning lazy-bone ditties about England's colonial tendencies and indulging his burgeoning piano jones. Not that his scrawl is completely legible now: "Vague Space" promises to "erase mistakes of the forest lakes," and "Phantasies" boasts an alarmingly legit calypso hook. But throughout, Malkmus sounds like he has grown up and realized that sometimes a straight line goes further than you think. Wowee zowee.

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