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Concert Review: Stephen Malkmus

Concert Review: Stephen Malkmus

Those expecting to see Malkmus actually behind the synths should temper their expectations.

Doug Fir Lounge, Portland, OR
05/10/2019

What is it that made Michael Jordan take up golf? Why did Terminator X of Public Enemy take up ostrich farming? What made Arnold Schwarzenegger jump from bodybuilding to acting to public office? I think, after doing the same thing for too long, sometimes you want to jump to the opposite of what you’ve been doing for so long because, after a while, we just begin to crave variety and get restless enough that we need to scrap everything and start over. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be shocking that slacker indie rock elder statesman Stephen Malkmus (of Pavement, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, and most importantly Silver Jews’ American Water), who has stayed his course of making great guitar pop of various shades since the dawn of the ‘90s, this year released the fetishistically-titled Groove Denied, a self-produced (and completely solo) collection of largely electronic songs that he made over the course of a decade. The album was a massive departure from every project he’s ever put his name to, to the point where it’s difficult to even draw a through line between Groove Denied and, say, Brighten the Corners. Whether or not it works is up to you, but you have to applaud the bravery.

A completely solo Malkmus album in turn translates to a completely solo show, which is an incredibly strange sight. Armed with a MacBook, a single guitar, and a whole mess of pedals, he stood completely alone in his slacks and yellow V-neck sweater, a button-up sticking messily through the neck hole. It’s hard to say if Malkmus – as adept at shredding as he is at being awkward – was in his element: he addressed the crowd very little throughout the set, his longest speech coming in the form of a ramble about which generation should be fought, before delivering Wowee Zowee’s “Fight This Generation,” his sole encore song. Prior to this, he was tight-lipped and focused, giving an occasional thank you.

Those expecting to see Malkmus actually behind the synths should temper their expectations. Though he appeared to be doing just a hare more laptop fiddling than might be required to just hit “Play,” the performance came off as little more than guitar-augmented karaoke. The good news, of course, is that the guitar augmented aspect was spectacular; Malkmus is still one of our greatest guitar players, made better by the fact that he plays like he doesn’t care that he’s shockingly good. If I hadn’t seen him perform several times before, I’d wonder if his dead-faced shredding was a symptom of the restlessness that made him turn to synthesizers in the first place. Outside of “Fight This Generation,” we were also granted two further Pavement songs: Terror Twilight’s “Spit on a Stranger” (the first song of the set that received truly excited applause from the crowd) and – to my surprise and immense delight – “Frontwards” from the Watery, Domestic EP.

The end result of all of this is that I’m unsure if the show was “good” or not, or if I truly enjoyed it. I’ve been a fan of Malkmus and his different projects for a while, enough that seeing him do anything at all is a treat. But looking around the room at the crowd, you have to wonder how many other people at the sold-out show – each standing still, save for an occasional head bob to a beat – were also unsure of their own enjoyment of the set. There’s an all-too-obvious joke to be made about how fitting the inclusion of “Frontwards,” with its refrain of “So much style, and it’s wasted” becoming more and more true of Malkmus himself with every passing year, but it’s entirely unfair – he puts his style to incredible use, but it’s effortless enough that it plays as too-cool swagger, world-weary slacker apathy, or some warped combination of the two. It’s hard to know if that’s enough to completely carry a show like this, but it’s an experiment worth checking out.

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