Stephen Malkmus: Traditional Techniques (Matador) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, November 25th, 2020  

Stephen Malkmus

Traditional Techniques

Matador

Jun 25, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Say what you will about Stephen Malkmus and his post-Pavement musical output, but no one can accuse him of sliding by on his musical goodwill. Never one to rest on his laurels, Malkmus’ Traditional Techniques, his first album of dedicated, acoustic “folk" inspired originals, is a creative and absorbing album full of surprises.

 

If your eyes rolled at the thought of Malkmus jumping on board the least-fashionable music train in several decades, you’re not alone. There’s something overly precious and a little derisory about an earnest folk record in 2020. From its on-the-nose title, to its barren, white and red album cover, all the way to its primary instrument (a 12-string acoustic guitar strummed at close range, naturally), everything about Traditional Techniques dances perilously close to the edge of irony. It could act as a meta-concept album custom-made for a long-absent generation of slackers who still cling to Pavement’s musical promise.

That is, until you dig into the meta-modern folks sounds of Malkmus, at which point all lingering doubts should be laid to rest.

It turns out when faced with an opportunity to upgrade his musical grab bag, Malkmus is especially adept. (For more on this see his last record, the laptop-bred, techno-inspired Groove Denied.) Recorded in Portland, Oregon at Halfling Studios and engineered by Decemberists’ multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, Malkmus reportedly conceived of Traditional Techniques as a way to explore the myriad acoustic instruments hanging around in the studio: autoharp, pedal steel, dobro, weiseenborn, among others. And lest you believe the folk tunes on Traditional Techniques are not worldly enough, you’ll be pleased to find that traditional Eastern instruments such as kaval, udo, daf, and rabab appear alongside all of the acoustic sounds. For American and European folk music listeners, these uncommon instruments transform the album from a middle-of-the-road song collection into an amalgam of diverse sounds and influences; pushing Traditional Techniques past mere pastiche and into a new realm of imaginative sounds.

Traditional Techniques still shows off plenty of Malkmus’ lyricisms and his deadpan sense of humor. Album opener “ACC Kirtan,” a track equal parts Ravi Shankar and John Fahey, sounds out of time musically but Malkmus’ alliterative visions put us back on steady footing. “Light move forth form greatly/Ash perfume and pass/Matters swam a waving of magnified glass,” he sings before Joy Pearson harmonizes on the chorus: “the Duraflame’s wet/The ganache won’t set/Where are the rings for my sweet serviettes?” “ACC Kirtan” owes more than a little to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s template of bare-vocal folk and Malkmus borrows it to great effect. “Xian Man” rocks harder than the other tracks, a song highlighted by Malkmus informing us, naturally, that he’s “Miles Davis better than you,” while “The Greatest Own In Legal History” and “Brainwashed” benefit from some winding upright bass and 12-string guitar fingerpicking, respectively. “Flowin’ Robes” creaks up like reanimated monolith but then turns into an earnest Malkmus original that might have been a Pavement B-side—if it only had an electric guitar on it.

As Traditional Techniques winds down its brief 10-song arc, the latter half of the album—especially the last two songs “Signal Western” and “Amberjack”—comes down, quietly on a contemplative duo of songs. Both songs are sweet and simple, full of winsome singing and sparse guitar ringing out across the folk canyon. Malkmus has a reputation (perhaps unfairly, perhaps not) as a musician unencumbered by nostalgia or his musical past. But he’s been writing folk songs—that is, songs about lived experience and songs that long for truth—for many years. (What is “Cut Your Hair” if not a direct plea for freedom of expression?) You have to go back to Terror Twilight’s appropriately titled “Folk Jam” to hear him toy with unfamiliar instruments, but on Traditional Techniques, he uses them to achieve a greater purpose. He achieves a quality record that expands his sonic palette while also retaining his unique identity. Not many artists left over from the ’90s can make such a claim; Malkmus, however, can. (www.stephenmalkmus.com)

Author rating: 7/10

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Average reader rating: 7/10



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