November 6, 2001

The Jick is up

One of my friends who listened to me listening to one too many Pavement CDs started referring to me as "emo boy." I took great pains to point out that Pavement isn't emo, but the difference really started to seem academic. Basically his point was that I'd probably be a lot happier and get more dates if I didn't always put "Summer Babe" on repeat.

Maybe Stephen Malkmus decided the same thing too. After leaving Pavement behind, he's got a really cute girlfriend who's sometimes part of his new band (and who fulfills the same role that Linda McCartney did in Wings: something of a hack. But her hackdom is precisely what makes her presence in the band really touching), and he sounds like he's having a really, really good time.

In fairness I should suggest that Malkmus may have seemed like a guitar god Friday night because the opening act was so over-earnest. The Pinetop Seven (two guitars, upright bass, drums, cello, and trumpet; Pinetop #7, who plays god knows what, I'm guessing a flute, was not in attendance) played a few fairly interesting songs. I had a crush on the cello player through the first couple numbers, but then she sang the only line I could make out during their set: "You can't go home again. And that's called: [dramatic pause] sad." To their credit they ended with an indie-rock-flamenco instrumental reminiscent of the little R.E.M. gem "Underneath the Bunkers" that finally got everyone's attention. Maybe they'd have been better off if they'd just shut up and drove from the beginning; most of their stuff was not the kind of music you want to listen to standing up and drinking a Guinness. More like sitting in a straight-backed wood chair with your legs crossed and a hot cup of tea. The trumpet player did, however, light a cigarette between songs, smoke, leave it in an ashtray during his part, then sneak a few puffs while the rest of the band was playing.

So when Malkmus came out with his new quartet, the Jicks, the audience was tired of having to make small talk with their dates and really wanted to rock. Given how highly produced and intricate his self-titled solo debut was, this wasn't an inevitability. He could have come out and tried to be Steely Dan.

He didn't, thank God. Instead, he took all the weird details from his new songs and turned them into power chords, ripping through almost everything on his last album. "Phantasies," a psychedelia-lite lounge number on the album, became a pop-rock treat. "Jo-Jo's Jacket," a song about Yul Brenner or something, turned into an excuse to rawk. His quartet is tight, tighter than Andy Pettite's ass on an October evening; the rhythm guitarist switches between guitar and keyboards during songs, which is slightly more impressive than the bassist smoking during the slower numbers.

A purist might argue that he was less moving than he was during his Waste Land years, circa "Fillmore Jive." But I was moved, moved enough to pay $15 for beer over the course of the night. Think of this as his Four Quartet period: simple, sweet, embracing the Church, and all the more inspiring for giving in to bliss.

And that's why it was such a beautiful evening. Forget the cheesecake picture on the front of his new album; Stephen Malkmus is short, skinny, and looks like me when I was too cheap to go to Supercuts (it's true, ladies). Watching him play rock idol gives me hope as the dark Chicago winter nears: even skinny emo guys will find happiness.