Indie rock veteran of many hats goes unplugged
It turns out that one of the busiest guys in the indie-rock business is also one of the most unpredictable. Stephen Malkmus put out Sparkle Hard with the Jicks in 2018 and Groove Denied hardly a year after that. Where, pray tell, did he get the idea to pivot from modest dad rock to new-wave-inspired beats in less than 12 months? You can decide for yourself whether his releases have been as interesting as the mood swings in between, but there’s no doubt that this fellow can put on an interesting act just by daring people to guess his whereabouts.
Malkmus now strolls into 2020 with his second solo album in two years, Traditional Techniques. He must have developed an allergy to laptops in the year since Groove Denied – this record could have been recorded in the late ’60s. The unplugged approach might initially surprise listeners (as Malkmus is prone to do), but heads will probably stop spinning within the album’s first few minutes. This is a slow, calm medley, like a soundtrack for gardening. The sweeter moments of Malkmus’ early discography (“Pink India” off his self-titled debut, for example) might’ve hinted at something like Traditional Techniques, which challenges the indie veteran to swap heavy guitars for flutes and sitars. Nevertheless, the work stands on its own. It’s Malkmus’ most serene to date, flush with soft, ambient compositions fit to play around a campfire. Traditional Techniques doesn’t exactly send a jolt to the heart, but it’s a handsome left turn.
The album is adorned with Malkmus’ signature lyrics, which are used to weave together tracks like the zany “Shadowbanned.” Steel guitars jangle their way over from one of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns while Malkmus spouts nonsense like he’s trapped in a fever dream (“drip gush drip data-driven skip/ to the part where the left bros parody TED Talks”). “The Greatest Own in Legal History,” in contrast, embraces the warm folk influences that wind through most of the record. An endearing rustic aesthetic is cleverly paired with the cool affectation of the narrator, a lawyer trying to convince a gullible client of a sure victory (“I’ll be there to vet the jury/ make sure there’s a couple softies on our side/ they’ll see their own kids in you”).
The acoustic work glows on songs like “What Kind of Person” and “Brainwashed.” The guitars on these tracks speak with a relaxing charm as if they’re tracing out constellations on a breezy autumn night. “Xian Man” is the odd one out; it’s a nod to rock pioneers like The Velvet Underground and Donovan, adding some psychedelic flavor to a noisy, country-styled gallop.
Traditional Techniques could potentially have benefited from some catchier tunes. Without a melody to remember, the album is enjoyed moment by moment, each fading instant into the next. Still, the songs here are undeniably pretty, and they’re worth a listen, even if Malkmus will only end up starting from scratch for his next trick.