It must be real sweet to be Stephen Malkmus. As one of the most consistent elder statesmen of indie rock, he’s kept a career going since the ‘90s based solely on following his own whims and wishes, first as the leader of the seminal slacker rock outfit Pavement, then as the face of Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks. Anyone who has listened to him long enough knows that he’s clearly not the kind of man to make anything but the music he’s invested in making – the most recent example of this was last year’s Groove Denied, which found Malkmus using his very first truly solo record to make his own version of electronic music. Despite trading his guitars for synthesizers, it still sounded exactly like an album he would make. That’s part of the charm: he’s never made anything that didn’t sound entirely like him.

Traditional Techniques is no different. He’s traded his synthesizers for guitars again, but the slingshot back to “traditional” instruments has landed him in the world of folk music (described by the album’s announcement as “new phase folk music for new phase folks”), a truly bizarre place for Malkmus to end up. He isn’t as alone here, either – he’s joined by Chris Funk of the Decemberists (who also produced the record, as well as the excellent Jicks record Sparkle Hard), Zwan’s Matt Sweeney and Joy Pearson, who each do their part in helping to create the dreamy world of Traditional Techniques. Opener “ACC Kirtan” is a blissful six-minute trek that swirls the voices of Malkmus and Pearson in with guitars, hypnotic drums and – no joke – bouzouki to suck you into that world. It takes you a moment to get your bearings, but once you do, the hands of the album’s creator become impossible to miss.

The one-two punch of “ACC Kirtan” and the spritely lead single “Xtian Man” is both a fake-out and a worthy introduction – these two songs feel like an ill-fit for the record, but also help prepare you for everything after. The irresistibly-catchy stand-out “Shadowbanned” blends the layers of the former while capturing the energy of the latter, fusing together to make something that feels indebted to George Harrison, while on “The Greatest Own in Legal History,” Malkmus gently coos over unflashy guitar picking and pedal steel, his voice finally brought to the fore instead of being buried amid the psychedelic swirl. Much of the record resides within the laid-back mode of “The Greatest Own,” which makes Traditional Techniques sound a lot like Malkmus’ version of Wilco’s underrated soft-rock gem Sky Blue Sky.

That soft rock palette is one of the record’s greatest aesthetic strengths, but it comes dangerously close to working against Malkmus entirely. Killer tracks like “Shadowbanned” and “What Kind of Person” are worth sticking around for, but there’s also the pretty-but-forgettable “Cash Up” and the ambling “Brainwashed,” which fit well within the album’s framework, but are harder to connect with when separated from the pack. These songs underline the biggest real issue with Techniques: it’s good, but Malkmus doesn’t sound like he’s having as much fun as he could be. Outside of “Xtian Man” and “Shadowbanned” (which, perhaps not coincidentally, are the album’s two singles), Techniques is less about bangers and more about drifters – songs that float across your ears and may even stick, but still totally avoid the joyous rush that you should feel with Malkmus at the helm. And, depending on your sensibilities, you may find that it ends with a fizzle rather than a bang, with the somber “Amberjack,” which is as gorgeous as it is anticlimactic.

If you came to Traditional Techniques hoping for music that is clearly, truly, obviously made by Stephen Malkmus, you’re in luck: these songs are unmistakably Malkian in nature, and the use of flutes and bouzouki don’t do anything to hide a fundamental truth that potent. As with Groove Denied, half the fun is getting to see how he’s able to cover the album’s core concept with his fingerprints, while the other half is just getting to hear what he’s interested in making right now. The main drawback is that it’s difficult to figure out how much staying power Traditional Techniques will have in the long run, especially when compared to the best of the Jicks or Pavement. Will his perma-slacker take on folk music capture people’s hearts? Who knows, but as long as he’s happy making it, we should all be happy to hear it.

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