New CDs from Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, and Counting Crows

Real Emotional Trash, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings

STEPHEN MALKMUS & THE JICKS
(Matador)

Remember the media mutterings about Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst being the new Bob Dylan? Such a falsity could only be perpetuated by the same clowns who prophesized that The Strokes and The White Stripes would save rock 'n' roll. If anyone deserves the moniker of "The New Bob Dylan" for Generations X, Y and Me, it's Stephen Malkmus — the indie-rock crown prince and postmodern wordsmith behind Pavement.

The band's Slanted and Enchanted (1992), Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994) and Wowee Zowee (1995) are arguably more influential and relevant to today's youth than the entire discography of that little band called Nirvana.

Pavement broke up in 1999, and four stellar solo records later Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks emerge with Real Emotional Trash. My first reaction to this release is that Malkmus has yet to equal his first post-Pavement effort: the self-titled masterpiece featuring such underground hits as "Jenny and the Ess-Dog" and "Jo Jo's Jacket."

Trash is a slower burn. Its hooks and melodies are more abstract, and the man at the helm is tangibly shying away from instant pop formulas — with the exception of "Gardenia," a well-crafted gem. The main drawback of Trash is its tendency toward idle jamming. This is mostly evident on "Elmo Delmo," a meandering five minutes of mediocre nonsense.

However, the color and raunch of Trash's guitar tones are a real breakthrough. In fact, the disc finds every one of the Jicks commanding their instruments with an aplomb that approaches otherworldly greatness. Mike Clark finally gets a chance to showcase his bag of synthesizer tricks on "Wicked Wanda." Bassist Joanna Bolme provides a lush and heavy coating, and newly acquired drummer Janet Weiss (formerly of Sleater-Kinney) comes out pounding the skins with an intensity that's usually absent from Malkmus' solo projects.

On highlight tracks "Cold Son," "Baltimore" and the title song, Malkmus contemplates his role in the nuclear family unit with the same bittersweet remorse he applied to "Freeze the Saints" on '05's Face the Truth. The best track, however, is the exquisitely sparse "We Can't Help You." Malkmus sings, "There's no common goal/ There's no moral action/ There's no modern age/ From which to run away/ There's no grace in love/ Without no projection/ There's no sky above/ For you to cry into." These lyrics are vague, yes, but Malkmus somehow manages to once again articulate the awkward suffering of aging in contemporary society. Plus, listeners are treated to lilting harmonies from Bolme and Weiss.

In all, Real Emotional Trash is just another building block in Malkmus' brilliant career.  3.5 stars  —Jason Kushner

Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings
COUNTING CROWS

(Geffen)

"I am a child of fire/ I am a lion/ I have desires/ And I was born inside the sun this morning," Adam Duritz seethes on the swaggering "Hanging Tree," the best song from Counting Crows' new "double album" (on a single CD), Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings. Those lines are as good a war cry for Saturday night as I've heard in a while. Later, on the more sedate Sunday Mornings portion, Duritz intones, "I want a white bread life/ Just something ignorant and plain." That's a lie, of course, or at least Duritz is lying to himself. But that's what makes the hirsute frontman so compelling: He always seems on the verge of coming unhinged; he works through the contradictions of what is surely a complex life for all to soak up.

Saturday Nights rocks as hard as anything Counting Crows has ever done; Sunday Mornings, recorded separately, is their most rootsy and folk-leaning work.

In all, though, the project never quite coalesces. At first, the six Saturday Night numbers that lead off the disc sound rather rehashed; in time, as is often the case with Counting Crows, the tunes sink in. The eight Sunday Morning tracks have their sensitive and insightful moments but kind of all meld together, more amorphously than they should. Probably the album's greatest failing is that no two or three songs emerge as transcendent, as vital new gems in the Crows' canon. The consistency (and relative lack of inspiration) in the music does not match Duritz's ambivalent, turmoil-foiled lyrics. A missed opportunity. 3 stars —Eric Snider