Stephen Malkmus: Groove Denied review – stark, forbidding soundscapes

(Domino)

With a couple of honourable exceptions – specifically his self-titled 2001 solo debut and last year’s excellent Sparkle HardStephen Malkmus has too often during his post-Pavement career found himself bogged down in amorphous, sub-Grateful Dead jams. Indeed, Frank Black aside, it’s hard to think of a solo canon that’s been quite so consistently underwhelming.

Which makes this long-delayed adventure in electronica such a surprise. In fact, it’s such a radical departure that his record label initially refused to release it – hence the title. Largely written in Berlin and recorded alone at home in Oregon, its stark and forbidding soundscapes owe much to the early-80s synth movement, the likes of opener Belziger Faceplant far more concerned with texture than melody; the deadpan A Bit Wilder, meanwhile, could be a mechanically recovered New Order offcut, circa 1981. Curiously, this bold new direction isn’t sustained; the further into the album Malkmus gets, the more normal service resumes, as if he isn’t entirely convinced of his new direction. Forget Your Place’s loops and treated vocals recall the Beta Band at their wooziest; Come Get Me sounds like a flab-free demo version of one of his Jicks songs; Ocean of Revenge, for all its flirtation with drum machines, is an unashamedly lovely acoustic ballad. It doesn’t make for a particularly cohesive album, but perhaps that’s the point.

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