Stephen Malkmus has been busy over the last few years. So much has happened in the world in such a short time, you may be surprised to be reminded it was just over a year ago that we were treated to his “electronic” album, Groove Denied. His most recent solo offering, Malkmus’ third without the Jicks, finds the Pavement frontman trading analogue synths and the autobahn for sitars and the Middle East. Traditional Techniques is a largely mellow, folky affair that comes across as a welcome respite given the horror that is life in the first half of 2020.
The six-minute “ACC Kirtan” opens Traditional Techniques with gentle, reverb-soaked sitar and flute that immediately gives the feeling of a peaceful oasis. Soon, a tanpura starts up as tabla drums enter, punctuating a sweetly plucked acoustic guitar. Although “ACC Kirtan” is a departure instrumentally, lyrically it’s the same drily comedic Stephen. “The Duraflame’s wet, the ganache won’t set, where are the rings for my sweet serviettes?” Malkmus sings drolly. Things pick up during the hippy-dippy “Xian Man”. The song builds with dual electric guitar solos circling just underneath Stephen’s Velvets-era Lou Reed-inspired vocal take.
Traditional Techniques wanders into distinctly indie folk territory on “The Greatest Own in Legal History”, which sounds like it could be an acoustic version of a Terror Twilight outtake. The rest of the record’s first half is concluded in fine form with the subtly country “Cash Up” and the trippy, wonderfully quirky “Shadowbanned”. On the latter, raw-blown flutes flutter amidst psychedelic synths while Malkmus chants comically disparate lines like, “Sky high on Reddit karma fly, over Amazon wheat fields and rivers of Red Bull.”
The second half of Traditional Techniques begins with “What Kind of Person”, a love song that offers the album’s ever-present flute a few charming solo moments. “Brainwashed” delivers a nice electric piano playing around Stephen’s first-person anecdote about a character who becomes too big for his/her britches. “Success is addictive, you know about that,” he sings just before the song’s final two minutes which have the musicians patiently trading emotive solos. The record’s penultimate moment, “Signal Western”, is also Malkmus’ finest vocally. Here, he stays in a distinctly higher register, never sounding strained or insincere.
The beautiful ballad “Amberjack” concludes the album. Whether intentionally or not, Malkmus manages to somehow simultaneously channel both Leonard Cohen and Jeff Tweedy in style and delivery. The production on the record’s final four minutes is stellar and comparably stripped down, exposing Stephen’s every vulnerability. It’s a fine ending to a fine album. Traditional Techniques is a winner and a saving grace during an otherwise strange and sad time.