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Stephen Malkmus - Face The Truth

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Artist: Stephen Malkmus

Album: Face The Truth

Label: Matador

Review date: Jun. 13, 2005

Face the Truth is Stephen Malkmus’ third album since Pavement’s break-up in 1999, and over the course of those three albums the direction of his solo career has become a little more apparent. Everybody assumed that Malkmus was the mastermind behind Pavement, and that the band’s skewed brand of ‘90s indie rock was his vision. That may or may not have been the case, but 2003’s Pig Lib and Face the Truth have both made it clear that Malkmus had musical interests that ranged much wider than “indie” rock.

Specifically, “No More Shoes,” the sixth track from Face the Truth, and a song undeniably influenced by psychedelic rock, would never have made it past the demo stage. It wasn’t until Malkmus went solo that his instrumental virtuosity – and his potential to launch into extended jams – became a greater part of his recorded work. That’s really the tension running through his solo albums. On the one hand, his greatest strength as a songwriter is his ability to string together rather simple hooks (e.g., “Cut Your Hair”), on the other, Pig Lib and Stephen Malkmus both contained a fair amount of experimental material that was decidedly more complex – and decidedly less catchy – than anything he’d written before. Pig Lib balanced these pressures by trading off between them; for every extended exercise like “1% of One” there was a radio-ready “Do Not Feed the Oyster.” Face the Truth pulls off a better balancing act, incorporating both styles throughout the album: Malkmus has the same fractured pop sensibility, but his music is more expansive than it’s been before.

Much of the credit for that probably has to go to his backing band. Working once again with Mike Clark, John Moen, and Joanna Bolme (Elliott Smith’s former girlfriend), Malkmus switches easily between traditional rock and more unstructured styles. The opening of “Freeze the Saints” sounds like a piano ballad, and though it’s a verse-chorus-verse number, it’s heartily embellished with extended instrumental breaks. “Kindling for the Master” is a keyboard and bass-driven song, and almost a total departure from Malkmus’ guitar rock. Then, of course, there’s “No More Shoes,” a song on which the spacey new-age lyrics – “All my stray thoughts, they are unarranged, all my stray thoughts, they are impure” – and guitar heroics show off a heretofore unknown fascination with ’70s psych. “Post-paint Boy” comes closest to being one of Pavement’s alt-rock standards, but even there the ambling country-rock rhythm is broken up by a series of sudden tempo changes.

Rock may be the only genre in which some fans regard musical ability as a hindrance. Ever since “wanky” became a term of art when talking about albums, any attempt to show off one’s instrumental prowess has risked drawing criticism – or worse, boredom – from listeners. Face the Truth, however, is musicianship without wankery, where the band makes the most of their creative freedom. One of the best albums of the year.

By Tom Zimpleman

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