The former Pavement frontman—never someone who seemed interested in making a straightforward acoustic album—comes through with an unexpectedly deft and learned folk record.
Later this year, Stephen Malkmus will take part in a pair of Pavement reunion shows where, if the band’s reunion tour a decade ago is any predictor, he’ll dutifully play the songs fans expect to hear the way they want to hear them, then move on. Malkmus has never been subtle about his disinterest in nostalgia, but in truth, he’s never seemed especially interested in shaking things up, either. Since unshackling from Pavement, his solo albums with the Jicks have offered only the most minor variations on his wry, guitar-forward indie rock. Sure, one of them was produced by Beck, but could you really tell?
Recently, something changed. With 2018’s beguiling Sparkle Hard, Malkmus delighted in unexpected whims, deploying string sections and digital vocal manipulation so skillfully you could almost forget they weren’t always part of Malkmus’s toolkit. And if that album’s one-and-done stylistic detours felt like a lark, then 2019’s Jicks-less Groove Denied, a laptop-driven tribute to early electronic music and post-punk, proved he could really commit. For Traditional Techniques, Malkmus once again picks a muse and sticks with it. It’s a folk album, an unexpectedly deft and learned one at that.
Recorded with Decemberists multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, Chavez/Zwan guitarist Matt Sweeney, and Afghan musician Qais Essar, among others, the project was devised as an excuse to toy around with all the acoustic instruments Malkmus observed in Portland’s Halfling Studio while recording Sparkle Hard. That’s the official telling, at least, but the final product suggests a long-simmering fascination with the sounds of the Middle East and a deeper reverence for psych-folk than anything hinted at by the stray Pavement folk jam or B-side. Malkmus is just as committed to stringed instruments as he was the bleating electronics of Groove Denied. But on that album, Malkmus was moonlighting; here he’s a devoted student of the craft.