Former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus isn't exactly the greatest vocalist in the world, nor is he the greatest guitarist out there. For what it's worth, Malkmus isn't even among the greatest lyricists in the indie rock genre. However, you'd be hard pressed to find a more creative songwriter, just as there may not be a more influential underground musician than Stephen Malkmus. Even though his latest solo album, Real Emotional Trash, isn't exactly the indie rock masterpiece that Pavement's debut was, Malkmus deserves a lot of credit for not only continuing to play some of the finest indie rock in the genre today, but also for continuing to innovate more than 15 years after his band helped established indie rock as a genre of music. The Jicks are a very different band than Pavement, and anyone still holding out for the same raw sound of Malkmus' early days are going to be disappointed. However, fans should know by now that The Jicks are not Pavement, and that Stephen has gone in a completely different direction since his Pavement days. The problem is that it's still hard to tell what exactly that direction is. Real Emotional Trash is the fourth album by Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, and the band's biggest issue remains identity. Many of the songs feature moments of overly catchy indie pop ("Gardenia" and "Dragonfly Pie" to name two of the catchiest), while just as many songs venture into moments of prolonged jam sessions that sound like something out of a progressive rock record. In a way, that's both the beauty and flaw of the album, as it shows that Malkmus is an incredibly varied musician who can pull off a number of different sounds, but the band as a whole has still yet to piece the different styles together into a coherent mixture. It still provides for an interesting listen, and the creativity of the record is certainly worthy of praise, but it's more than somewhat disappointing that the band still sounds like an experiment four records in. Still, everything Malkmus presents on this album works to some degree, and anyone who doesn't mind that the Jicks are still essentially a hodgepodge of everything Malkmus didn't do with Pavement should give Real Emotional Trash a listen. It's also worth noting that former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss does a fantastic job behind the kit (especially on the wonderfully progressive title track), and continues to prove that she is one of the most underrated drummers in all of music.
Key tracks: Hopscotch Willie, Real Emotional Trash, Out of Reaches
Prior to ObZen's release, one could certainly make the case that Meshuggah have been great. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to call Meshuggah one of the greatest bands in all of metal. Unfortunately, the band has yet to release that one great album that encompasses the band's sound into something consistently great from start to finish. Granted, Meshuggah have had great songs on all of their albums, and their sound has a whole has been one of the most brutal and influential in the genre for a number of years. Still, they've lacked that one definitive album that every great band has. Now, in 2008, Meshuggah have finally made that great record. ObZen is the first Meshuggah album to be able to sustain their unique and brutal blend of thrash, death, and progressive metal through the length of an entire album. The result is an absolutely brilliant metal offering that is guaranteed to make the hairs on your neck stand up. Aside from the band's impressive combination of brutality, melody, and progression, the thing that separates Meshuggah from both their influences and the numerous bands they themselves have influenced throughout their career is that the band's music is driven not by guitar, but instead by some simply phenomenal bass and drum combinations. In fact, the guitar is used as nothing more than a way of keeping the beat on a number of tracks, while the drums run wild. This makes for not only a unique metal sound, but also a brutal force that is both raw and punishing. Like many technical metal albums, ObZen does start to develop a common formula near the end, but that's a small flaw considering that the highs of this album far exceed what is usually found in the genre, as well as that the album has numerous moments of progression. The absolutely phenomenal "Bleed" is an example of that, as the song is a nearly flawless mixture of Meshuggah's uncanny brutality and the band's integration of melodic elements. Not every song on the album mixes those elements at such a high level of success, but the number of tracks that come close (the title track, "Combustion," "Electric Red," and "Pravus" for example) are simply staggering. ObZen is a brutal album from start to finish, but it's not brutal for the sake of being brutal. The album still has enough melody, progression, and varied songwriting to make it a great album period, not just a great extreme metal album. That, in essence, is what metal should be, and ObZen, for better or for worse, is about as metal of a record as there is.
Key tracks: Bleed, ObZen, Pravus
Part 3 coming tomorrow