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Review: Stephen Malkmus tests folk music's limits on album

This cover image released by Matador Records shows "Traditional Techniques," a release by Stephen Malkmus. (Matador Records via AP)
March 05, 2020 - 3:12 PM

Stephen Malkmus, “Traditional Techniques” (Matador Records)

Stephen Malkmus has gone folk. Sort of.

One year after the quasi-dance moves of “Groove Denied,” he’s back with “Traditional Techniques,” an expansive exploration of the acoustic tradition.

The third record under his own name plays like a handbook for independent people and makes use of everything from autoharp to Afghani instruments. Like-minded friends like guitarist Matt Sweeney drop by to further the cause. The straightforward title holds credence, but this is really about the restless nature of his songwriting.

On “Brainwashed” Malkmus lets on: “I’m on the open idea plan.” The track “Xian Man” backs that up with a zigzagging riff that will get etched into skulls upon repeat listens. The song crests when an electric guitar is set ablaze, uplifting the tune’s galloping sway. The opener drifts into campfire sing-along, then rides out on a coda of Joy Pearson harmonizing with a spectral slide guitar. “Shadowbanned” is the truest outlier, a loping jaunt through our modernized landscape that comes off like a distant relative to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

The purist folk songs are things of wonder. “The Greatest Own in Legal History” details the parasitic nature of attorney-client relations in the most tender reading imaginable. The combination of touching vocals and glistening pedal steel will make fan mixtapes for years.

The clearer instrumental palette magnifies Malkmus’ astute lyricism. He has an epiphany about someone “who steals in reverse," throws clever jabs — “I’m Miles Davis better than any of you” — and winking confessions: “We’re not foolish adults anymore.” On the barstool reflection “Amberjack,” he admits to still being “into watching bridges burn.”

Early on Malkmus sings “I would like to represent you, be your verbal musician.” As the voice of “traditional” indie rock for decades, he pretty much has. Continuing to age gracefully, he’s made another exploratory album sound effortless, making this one really easy to listen to.

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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