Ex-Pavement frontman proves the cheekbones - and the tunes - are still intact...

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Stephen Malkmus: New York Bowery Ballroom

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Stephen Malkmus: New York Bowery Ballroom

If anyone at tonight’s show is expecting former indie golden boy Stephen Malkmus to bust out a medley of old Pavement favourites, they’ll leave scratching their heads. The regal-cheekboned Scrabble champion formerly known as SM is here to debut a new band and new songs, and any cheeky shouts of “Box Elder!” will only be met with a laconic grin and a shake of the head. To underscore his new status as a struggling unknown, he’s even distributing free T-shirts reading: “Who the fuck is Stephen Malkmus?”

So what’s his new direction? Most of tonight’s songs are from his upcoming solo disc, and, well, Stephen Malkmus in 2001 sounds… quite a bit like he did in late-period Pavement, when the early-’90s multipronged fuzz gave way to sunset-tinged pop and lyrics more wistful in their crypticness.

But that’s not a bad thing – he’ll never do another ‘Debris Slide’, but the new clarity has forced his songwriting to come out more in the open. Two of tonight’s best songs tell actual cohesive stories: ‘Hook’ is the catchy tale of a kidnapped young man carving a happy life with Turkish pirates, and ‘Jenny And The Ess-Dog’ depicts a sweet if fleeting liaison between a rich 18-year-old and the 31-year-old “son of a Coca-Cola middleman”.

But where late-era Pavement seemed a bit lackadaisical live, Malkmus’ new band have worked out a tight but easy groove. Granted, Malkmus’ girlfriend Heather Lorimer and her not-quite-in-sync maracas sometimes seem superfluous, but when she and Malkmus trade goofy grins, it’s obvious he’s glad she’s there. From a band standpoint, she fills the role of Pavement’s Bob Nastnovitch – not technically necessary, but adding a certain undeniable vibe.

Halfway through the set some joker yells out for ‘Connection’, undoubtedly having heard the rumour that Justine Frischmann may join the band as a guitarist on future dates. Malkmus, though, seems fine with the prospect of leading the show on his own. “But I like playing guitar,” he says in an exaggerated drawl. “What do you think I do all day?” So never fear, Indie Nation – regardless of how the flavour-of-the-week winds blow, he’ll always be around for us. No guarantees on the cheekbones, though.

Lisa Gidley