“Some of these songs have this kind of ramshackle rhythm first of all, and it’ll kind of get into something and then kind of fall apart a bit.” This is Stephen Malkmus talking with me on the phone about the title of his latest solo album, Groove Denied. It’s an accurate description of an album that opens with a song that seems to have two very different beats going on for nearly the first full minute of the song before collapsing back into something pretty interesting. There’s nothing outrageously different about this album in terms of music at large, but it’s both a departure and something very familiar for longtime fans of Malkmus’ work. And that alone might make it one of the best Stephen Malkmus records in a long time.
News that Stephen Malkmus was going to be releasing an ‘electronic record’ had to raise some eyebrows. He had teased this record in interviews surrounding 2018’s Sparkle Hard, largely saying that Matador Records had rejected the unnamed project and asked him to record something more guitar-centric. It’s a good story that is mostly true — we’re all suckers for a good ‘unreleased masterpiece’ tale. To be fair to Matador, in promotional copy for Groove Denied, the label stated that they simply asked him to do what became Sparkle Hard first. I asked Malkmus if he had his feelings hurt at all by their delay of the record or if he understood it more as the nature of being Stephen Malkmus ™.
“I certainly know [regarding Cat Power] – they kind of did the same thing to her a year ago with Wanderer. They said ‘we’re not sure this is the record for you,'” Malkmus said, referring to Chan Marshall’s record from last year that was released on Domino Records as a result of Matador’s hesitancy; her first for another label in 22 years. “I don’t know how much that’s going on in the world of mid-major indie. For me, to have an open conversation about what’s good or bad about what you’re doing, I’m open to it. I don’t want to be walking around with everybody saying ‘your fly’s down’ or whatever. I don’t know what it has to do with a brand or something.”
Still, for one of indie-rock’s elder guitar statesmen, something like this feels a bit out of the ordinary. Malkmus mentioned listening to things like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and other “squelchy synthesizer, DIY, weird punk things” in his younger days, but by the time Pavement came into existence, their collective vision was elsewhere. “For some reason, when Pavement started, the spirit was more maybe like Swell Maps or Chrome or Pere Ubu. things like that. Swell Maps do mess a bit with primitive electronics. ” When Malkmus started exploring some of the instruments and tools that he worked with on Groove Denied, he was concerned about how his intentions might come across
“There’s one song on the album called ‘Viktor Borgia’ that I wanted it to sound like that basic German copy of those kinds of bands like Neu!, but when I hear it through someone who doesn’t care about that kind of stuff, it can sound like Men Without Hats or something. [laugh] And then it’s more like a shitpost song or something. I didn’t want the record to be that. I knew there was some potential for that if I went too far into things that I don’t actually like.”
Groove Denied, in the end, is not that far of a left turn. Yes, the opening songs pull from a lot of the influences that Malkmus mentioned. “Viktor Borgia” (in addition to making me think about Victor Borges for the first time in decades) does have its Motorik beak in parts, sounding in parts like the Neu! homage he intended. “A Bit Wilder” has echoes of, well, Echo and the Bunnymen and Telekon-era Gary Numan. And the entire first half of the record stays in this truer synthesizer driven vein with the exception of the album’s best song: “Come Get Me.” It’s the kind of sweet, gentle song that always stood out among the chaos of Pavement’s albums and that mostly appeared on the first Malkmus solo album in the form of “Church on White” or “Trojan Curfew.” And it’s here that the album begins to take its turn
The second half of Groove Denied is where everything starts to find its place within Malkmus’ catalog.
All of these songs sound like they could’ve found a home on a lot of his other albums with the Jicks, but here the incredible precision and studio gleam are pulled back to reveal a sound closer to early Pavement – not in explicit song, but in general feel. It helps that Malkmus plays pretty much everything on this record. There’s an exploratory weirdness to all of this that feels genuine and like we were allowed a peak into something a little less refined and maybe just a bit more real. It’s a grower of an album that reveals itself slowly not because it was painstakingly crafted to do so, but because the more we listen to its “ramshackle rhythm,” the easier it is to hear our own imperfect footsteps.
The fact that the album shifts from its more obvious electronic tones into something more familiar on the back-half makes some immaculate sequencing sense. By dropping the records most different songs first, it makes the evolution between styles more evident. By the time “Come Get Me” suddenly stops and launches into “Forget Your Place,” you’re starting to feel the rhyme and reason of the album – just in time for the second half to more fully abandon the truer synthesizer driven sounds and do more embellishing on common sounds.
Groove Denied is, in the end, the kind of far-from-flawless record that is a lot easier to love because of that. The stakes are lower, the highs are higher, and the truth is that it’s nice to hear a musician as talented as Malkmus chase down a rabbit hole instead of yet again refining a musical personality decades in the making. words / j neas
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