As a songwriter, Stephen Malkmus specializes in hooks that never quite resolve, melodies that jump in all directions, and lyrics that drop a few enticing references and then move on. In short, his songs have no business being as catchy as they are.
By Brett Milano
What’s the difference between Pavement and Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks? About two blocks — specifically the distance between the Agganis Arena (where Pavement headlined on their 2010 reunion tour) and the Paradise (where Malkmus, back with the Jicks, played on Tuesday). One is an indie-rock touchstone and brand name, the other still isn’t quite. But since Malkmus’ songwriting and his inscrutable sensibility were such a key part of Pavement, you still get the essence at a Jicks show. And if the reunited Pavement had stayed together and recorded the new songs Malkmus played this week with the Jicks, nobody would be complaining.
As a songwriter, Malkmus specializes in hooks that never quite resolve, melodies that jump in all directions, and lyrics that drop a few enticing references and then move on. In short, his songs have no business being as catchy as they are. But as Pavement went on, it became clear that Malkmus was concealing some refined popcraft behind a mask of slacker-dom, and the more you absorbed his songs, the more sense they made. This hasn’t changed with the Jicks, whose core members (bassist Joanna Bolme and keyboardist Mike Clark, lately joined by drummer Jake Morris) have been with him for 13 years, beating Pavement’s longevity by a few years.
The band’s onstage demeanor remains casual, between songs they’ll banter with each other as much as they chat with the audience. During the encore Malkmus mentioned the Newport Folk Festival, free-associated this with his preferred brand of cigarettes, then offered a free T-shirt to anyone who could provide a pack of Newports. When somebody tossed one up, he made sure that the shirt was delivered — audience participation at its finest.
Tuesday’s set was evenly balanced between Malkmus’ relatively straightforward tunes (the opening “Jenny & the Ess-Dog,” about a hippie couple’s breakup, was breezy and bittersweet) and longer, stretched-out numbers. Also high on the catchiness scale was a new number, “Cinnamon & Lesbians” — and if I’m reading the lyric right, it celebrates the fact that you can find both those things in California. Though there were plenty of instrumental stretches, don’t call them a jam band: instead of improvising they navigated tricky written sections, edging close to prog rock more than once (not for nothing does the current Jicks logo look like a modified version of the Yes trademark). Closing the regular set, “No More Shoes” ended with a long guitar break that resolved the song’s emotional tension.
Through it all Morris played polyrhythmic parts that suggested a well-worn Rush collection. Speaking of Rush, the encore offered a pair of Pavement tunes, “Summer Babe” and “Stereo” — the latter with its oft-quoted verse marveling at the register of Geddy Lee’s voice. The tune prompted a crowd singalong, just as it did at the Agganis in 2010; but tonight it had the advantage of wrapping up a fine set of mostly-new material.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.