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Stephen Malkmus travels down country roads with Silver Jews

In Hear ThisA.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: In celebration of his new solo LP, we pick songs by Stephen Malkmus

By a simple twist of fate—“Trains Across The Sea” being released a few years earlier, say, becoming as great a college radio obsession as Pavement’s “Summer Babe”—we might be discussing Stephen Malkmus as “that guy from Silver Jews,” with Pavement taking that band’s place as the afterthought (or possibly not mentioned at all). Malkmus formed the Silver Jews with frontman David Berman and Pavement drummer Bob Nastanovich in 1989, right around the same time as his most famous act. There are even some particularly ardent fans that will tell you that this often-misidentified “Pavement side project” is easily the superior band.

I’m not one of them, by the way. As much as I like Silver Jews, they can’t compete with the wildly oblique, cerebrally damaged pop of Pavement, or the impact that group had on me as a grunge-dulled kid of the early ’90s. But I do believe that any discussion of Stephen Malkmus’ career is incomplete without also considering his contributions to Berman’s bleary-eyed view of the Nashville skyline.

By 1998’s American Water, those contributions had become necessarily more fitful, to the point where Berman had already moved on without him. The Joos’ previous release, The Natural Bridge, was made entirely without Malkmus or Nastanovich, with Berman reportedly bailing on a recording session they’d scheduled right before Pavement’s big Australian tour (and leaving Malkmus, Nastanovich, and Steve West to whip up Pavement’s Pacific Trim EP with the already-paid-for studio time). So American Water was a homecoming—one that was poised to capitalize on Malkmus’ worldwide popularity by showcasing his “other” group. Fortuitously, it was the Joos’ most perfectly realized record.

Of the two songs that bear Malkmus’ co-writing stamp, “Federal Dust” and “Blue Arrangements,” it’s the latter that would probably most appeal to fans that aren’t yet familiar. (And I’d say that’s borne out by the fact that Malkmus is still known to play it live with The Jicks.) “Blue Arrangements” is a portrait of romantic teenage yearning that falls thematically in line with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, with Malkmus and Berman opening with a swoon of kooky longing that’s like “Uptown Girl” on acid: “I see you gracefully swimming with the country club women
in the Greenwood Southside Society pool /
I love your amethyst eyes and your Protestant thighs / You're a shimmering socialite jewel.”

From there the lyrics get swept up in the grand, melodramatic gestures of young love—“Well I think I’d die, see, if you just said hi to me”; “What would you say if I asked you to run away?”—before being reminded that they’re grounded, mister. “The waves come in and the waves go back / The kids in the corner all covered in dirt /
Caught trespassing under the moon,” they sigh. “My father came in from wherever he'd been
/ And kicked my shit all over the room.” And then there’s this closing line, which—like all of Malkmus’ best work—cuts right to the heart of every mixed-up kid quietly biding his time by listening to weirdo indie rock in his bedroom, just waiting to get out of here: “In the end, a boy raises himself.”