Stephen J Malkmus: Traditional Techniques [Domino, LP]

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Stephen J Malkmus: Traditional Techniques [Domino, LP]

Stephen Malkmus, the J is optional, has been making music with a variety of line ups since his teens but got his commercial break in the early 90s when he formed the band Pavement with Scott Kannberg. Since then he has made music with the Silver Jews, the Crust Brothers and most recently on his first solo album Groove Deniedwhich was made largely using electronic sounds on a laptop. Traditional Techniques is quite the opposite, in fact it almost does what it says on the tin by using largely acoustic instruments including lesser known ones from the middle east and Japan alongside many different variations on the guitar theme, not many of which are electric. Malkmus’ main collaborator on this album is Chris Funk (the Decemberists) who is credited with autoharp, Dobro, Moog synthesizer, pedal steel, Weissenborn (Hawaiian lap guitar) and production, and if you have heard a Decemberist album you will have a notion of the tonal nature of this release. 

It’s the largely acoustic nature of Traditional Techniques that makes it so appealing, Malkmus’ songwriting is interesting if often opaque but the arrangements and production are what make it interesting, that and the fact that drums play a very small part on most of the 11 songs. The opener ‘ACC Kirtan’ starts with a wooden flute that’s joined by tabla and various acoustic guitars before Malkmus contributes a short three verse song that is particularly obtuse but finishes up lamenting some particularly first world problems including “The canasta deck is missing its jacks”. It creates beautiful vistas thanks to the natural reverb of the instruments, but the bass is a little thick throughout the album which gives it a contemporary feel without getting in the way. ‘Xian Man’ introduces bright electric guitar in the style of Ali Farka Touré but that is just one instrument in a mix which brings to mind Beck for the first and not last time on the album. This is also the first tune to feature psych style guitar and has the most raucous break on here, one of only a few references to Malkmus’ past.

‘The Greatest Own In Legal History’ is for my money the best track on the album, it seems fairly simple with a tambourine for rhythm and lap steel for emotional connection and suggests that Malkmus has mellowed with age like the proverbial fine wine. There are at least three guitars on ‘Cash Up’ and there’s nothing wrong with that, add in lines like “Give me a shred of doubt” and you don’t need much more than ‘ great arrangements to make a very listenable tune. ‘Shadowbanned’ continues this approach with an off kilter beat and a bit more psych-ing out albeit in restrained fashion. The flute returns for ‘What Kind of Person’ and this alongside some other unusual acoustic instruments gives it something of a Shakti vibe. On track seven a snare drum turns up, it’s played with brushes but it is nonetheless a traditional percussion instrument that gives ‘Flowin’ Robes’ a different style that doesn’t seem to fit in quite so well but it’s good to have some variety in your spice.

The sparse arrangement of bass and guitar is augmented by keyboards and mandolin on ‘Brainwashed’, on this down tempo track the lyrics make some kind of sense and refer to the desire to escape the self: “Brainwash me, brainwash me, Please, I am ready to bail”. This track is captivates by avoiding a traditional beat and flowing with a circular rhythm that has its roots in jazz. ‘Signal Western’ has sparse drums, electric guitar and bass with distant mysterious sounds that are obscured by more obvious lyrics that on inspection turn out to be of the amorus variety, although the emphasis is on decolonising and the L word is not even hinted at. ‘Amberjack’ is the only song that uses obvious effects to give it a bigger sound, maybe the simpler than most nature of the arrangement was considered too quiet to fit in. It’s a dreamy number with synth and mandolin accents that rolls over your ears and infuses them with good vibes. 

On the Qobuz streaming service you get an 11th song not seen on the tracklisting for CD and vinyl called Julief…..gette, maybe it’s hidden to keep the more censorious happy. This harks back to Malkmus’ earlier works and is something like laid back post punk if that makes sense, so quite possibly included for the ‘real’ fans. The Malkmus/Funk fusion is a successful one especially if you like a tapestry of acoustic guitars around obscure songs, it’s acoustic with edge and definitely a grower.

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