Stephen Malkmus, Face the Truth
Stephen Malkmus' 2005 solo album, Face the Truth, may be the most-contemporarily overlooked gem, to date, of my lifetime. Of course the album's release, by a figurehead of '90s indie rock (see Pavement), was greeted by generally warm response from all the rock media outlets an indie artist could hope to attract, so Why - you might ask - is this guy considering the album an Overlooked Gem? Well, for starters, compared with glowing reviews given to today's happening artists, it seemed to me that the critical response the album got by Pavement-loving critics was indie rock's version of polite praise, along the lines of "...the best Stones album since Exile" or "Dylan's best work since Blood on the Tracks." These compliments don't in any way beg of you, the reader, to run out and buy an album of the magnitude of that artist's last universally accepted great work. Rather, the critic wants to pass along notice that the artist actually has a pulse. Perhaps the artist is "aging gracefully," as many of the positive Malkmus reviews would note, throwing in something about his then-new status as a father. Granted, before you think I'm picking nits, I acknowledge that we should all be so overlooked after we've passed our initial burst of creative energy, but dig...
When Pavement was at its height and I was already halfway to geezerdom, I'd hear their records and think, They're pretty good for one of these sloppy new bands. I appreciated their stoner humor, their album covers, and some of the guitar interplay. For some reason, from way back when, I have fond memories of enjoying hearing Wowee Zowee in two friends' living room, the memory of which now puzzles said friends because they say they never liked that album and couldn't imagine playing it for me as a means to turn me onto the band. But to return to my point, I overlooked Pavement in the band's time, and by the time I got turned onto Face the Truth I was long past being able to collect the easy "cool points" I could have easily cashed in during the early-90s. Consider this akin to parents of my generation suddenly "loving" Willie Nelson after his collaboration with Julio Iglesias. So it goes. To this day I still have not gotten past my initial "pretty good for one of those bands" characterization, but I love this Face the Truth album. I'll tell you why.
If you've ever been a musician who writes songs to any degree of quality and who has friends who write songs to similarly varying degrees of quality, you may know what I'm about to describe. If not, hang on; it still may make sense. I write songs and I have a number of friends who write songs. Every once in a while one of these friends will play me a recording of something he wrote that knocks my socks off. The song itself may or may not be "great" in and of itself, but there's something about the recording that is clearly from the heart and soul of this friend I know and love. Not in a "major statement" way but more in a casual, subtle way that I'd like to think only one who's been blessed by friend's person's presence might readily indentify. It's a sense of insider information, and I get a feeling of pride in any of my friends' ability to so directly channel something I find unique through song. (Shortly thereafter I'm intensely jealous, finding reasons to denigrate this friend's existence, and pulling out my guitar, but that's another matter.) I don't know Stephen Malkmus from Adam, and I know almost nothing about the guy's life, but I get that sense of being blown away by a friend's new recording when I hear this album. I don't think you have to be a musician/songwriter to know this feeling, when an album by an artist you don't know lets you into his or her casually odd, inner world.
Long story short, I heard a couple of songs from that first Malkmus solo album, and I immediately liked the fact that it sounded more disciplined. That first solo album seemed to aspire to some of the '70s-based chops of a Lou Reed solo album. It promised what I consider the "good-bad" effect of late-70s Lou albums, including sometimes ponderous arrangements and both intentional and unintentional black humor. I had it on my "Find cheap used copy" list. Then a friend burned me a CD containing about 25 low-res mp3s of albums he thought I should check out. Face the Truth was one of them, and it grabbed me by track 2, "It Kills". The dual guitar solos that populate this and some other songs were a great icebreaker. Give me some dualing fuzz guitar solos, along the lines of The Pretty Things' SF Sorrow album, and Mikey likes at least that much.
Throughout the album, I also found myself drawn into the lyrics - sometimes mysterious, sometimes whimsical, sometimes wistful, often all of the above; brief musical references to '70s schlock like "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" and "I Was Made for Loving You"; and the sound of the rhythm section - warm, dry drums and chubby (not obese) bass. As with that first solo album, there are some chops on display, but the chops on Face the Truth sound natural, mannnnn, more like what '60s San Francisco psych bands should have sounded like - devoid of that geographical region's and era's abuse of reverb and other overt attempts at mindbending effects. In an 8-minute song called "No More Shoes", the well-recorded, well-arranged music itself does all the necessary mindbending.
For longtime Pavement fans, my love for the grown-up, self-critical (hear "Post-Paint Boy") Malkmus may buy me a permanent plot of land in Squaresville. Or, what do I know, maybe these folks can appreciate this album for being a mellowed-out version of stuff he once did much better and with more vitality. Fair enough. I've gone back and bought Wowee Zowee, and I do find plenty to like about it, but it's no Face the Truth (which I did end up buying at full price - please note this, Music Industry: mp3 trading can help your business). I'll see if there's anything else I end up loving by this guy, but if truth be told, not every song my friends bring me hit me with as much force. This one album, at least, is near and dear to me, and as a result, I feel like I know something about what makes this Malkmus guy tick. That feeling is always appreciated.