For me, there's nothing more depressing than a new Stephen Malkmus record. When his debut solo release was announced at the end of 2000, Malkmus' former group, Pavement -- generally agreed upon as one of the country's best-ever indie rock bands -- hadn't put out a winning album in years. So his emergence as a solo artist was understandably accompanied by a good amount of consternation and hand wringing. I remember taking a disaffected but realist approach: I didn't suspect that Malkmus' solo work would be as morose as the last two Pavement projects, but I also knew there was no way he could match the brilliance of that band's idiosyncratic pop masterpieces, 1992's Slanted & Enchanted and 1994's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.
Turns out I was right, not that it takes an ad hoc music critic to make such an obvious prediction. Stephen Malkmus was in fact a fairly well-received record, but very few critics could seem to avoid stating the obvious: by no means was it a Pavement-worthy release.
Face the Truth finds itself in a similar predicament. While it's a wonderful album, relatively speaking, and complete with all the unexpected pop whimsy and non-sequitur lyricisms that added to the brilliance of Slanted and Crooked Rain, it's nearly impossible to consider it solely based upon its own merits. So it's hardly the next Pavement album, although some of its best moments are certainly Pavement-esque, especially "Freeze the Saints," with its warmly noodling guitar and Malkmus' evenly toned singing. The ringing hook that surrounds the disc's second track, "It Kills," also sounds something like a Pavement leftover, but as Face the Truth slowly warbles forward, it also begins to spread its wings. "Kindling for the Master" is the standout oddball -- Malkmus's voice is either being processed by a vocoder or it's been programmed into a synthesizer, but otherwise, he and his backing band, the Jicks, seem to be taking an obstinate sort of pride in what may soon be labeled "organic music": ProTools, believe it or not, wasn't used in the creation of this album. We know this because of the Seal of Authenticity placed in the disc's liner notes, here rendered as a small, hand-drawn ProTools logo, circled and then crossed out, like a "no smoking" sign.
Authentic or not, though, Face the Truth will likely fade into slow obscurity over the coming months, although it doesn't actually deserve to. It's a mature record and a fun record -- no doubt a difficult combination to juggle, especially for a guitarist and vocalist with so much to live up to. It's also a carefree record, good for, say, driving down the highway in a convertible to, not that Malkmus has much to discuss here about the world we live in and life in general that makes any sense at any rate. "Nine times out of 10, I'm not the / guidance type, I've been sitting on a / fence post for the brunt of my life," he sings. Sounds a bit like Pavement, no? (2 Â½ stars)