Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks - Wig Out at Jagbags
Record Label: Matador Records
Release Date: January 7, 2014
If you're reading this review then there's a very good chance that you already know who Stephen Malkmus is: the enigmatic founder and frontman of much-adored seminal indie rock band Pavement. Since Pavement's last album—1999's Terror Twilight—Malkmus has put out four records with the Jicks including this one, as well as two under his name alone. So yes, Stephen Malkmus has now put out more albums post-Pavement than he did with them. His solo output, on the other hand, while often quite good, hasn't come anywhere close to the work he did with Pavement. But it's not really fair to compare guys like Malkmus' second acts to their original bands, because rekindling the special intangible "something" that bands like Pavement conjure up at the beginning of their career is almost impossible. And besides, plenty of nineties indie rock titans have done far worse in the time since their respective heydays—yeah Robert Pollard we're kind of looking at you here.
You don't have to do anything besides read the title of Wig Out at Jagbags though to know that one thing about Malkmus and his music hasn't really changed: he still feels very comfortable occupying the role of the snarky oddball in corner, taking witty shots at anything and everything and hoping most of them fall through the basket. You either like his distinctive lyrical and vocal styles or you don't, and while both have arguably mellowed in the years since Pavement, if you haven't liked anything you've heard from Malkmus previously then don't waste your time on this record. He's not going to change your mind this time around. While some of the rougher edges of his style have certainly been smoothed out as time has worn on, the flip side of this has been that many of Malkmus' releases with the Jicks have devolved into collections of really, really long, semi-masturbatory guitar jams. While that can be fun for a bit, it inevitably turns into a drag over the course of a full-length, no matter how much of a Malkmus diehard you are.
Thankfully, however, much like its predecessor Mirror Traffic, this record walks the line between those jams and Malkmus' trademark angular pop pretty deftly. Songs like "Cinnamon and Lesbians" and "Lariat" are some of the most enjoyable songs he's written post-Pavement: catchy as hell and his oddball lyricism is totally on-point. In fact, the lines "We lived on Tennyson and venison / And the Grateful Dead" from "Lariat" represent probably one of the best pull-out quotes of his career. In this song and in others such as "Rumble at the Rainbo" he seems to be looking backwards at the world he documented so beautifully in "Fillmore Jive" from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement's second record. On "Lariat" he manages to do so in a way that's instantly appealing, but on "Rainbo," one of the record's main sticking points becomes painfully obvious as Malkmus points it out himself: on one level he's kind of just another corny old dude who likes to spout off bizarre shit that sometimes doesn't make any sense. And the way he beats us over the head with that fact with the lines "Come slam dancing with some ancient dudes…No new material just cowboy boots!" in "Rainbo" is a far cry from the aforementioned "Fillmore Jive" where we never do find out what exactly it is that the kids' throats are filled with.
But like I said before, as much as it inevitably happens when talking about Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, comparing their work to Pavement isn't really fair. Malkmus at least mostly sounds like he's having fun here…well at least on raucous numbers like "Rainbo" he does. Elsewhere there are a handful of songs that just seem like empty shells for a cool guitar lick or solo, such as "The Janitor Revealed" or "Independence Street." Don't get me wrong, the guitar work on this record is probably the best thing about it, but when the songwriting is incredibly bland, it kind of leaves the listener wondering what the point is. And more importantly it leaves us wondering whether the people in the studio knew what the point was either, or were just kind of meandering about aimlessly.
Overall Wig Out at Jagbags isn't exactly a disappointing release, especially since it's far better than the breed of record many other artists multiple decades into their respective careers make. It is a frustrating one though, mostly because on songs like "Lariat," "Cinnamon and Lesbians" and the closer "Surreal Teenagers," Malkmus shows that he certainly still has the insightful snark and masterful pop sensibilities for which we first came to love him. But when he switches back over to auto-pilot it gets tempting to switch the record off.