Graded on a Curve: Stephen Malkmus
and The Jicks,
Wig Out at Jagbags

Twenty long years ago, when humans still walked on all fours and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was President, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus was the undisputed Grand Poobah of Indie Rock. Pavement had just released its slacker masterpiece, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, with its great anthems “Gold Soundz,” “Range Life,” and “Cut Your Hair,” all of which demonstrated Malkmus’ uncanny ability to write bewitching songs complete with sly word play that sounded, well, tossed off. Like in a half hour, tops. While stoned. And riding his skateboard.

But two decades is a long time, and Pavement long ago sulked its acrimonious way out of existence, with Malkmus in the tour bus with a coat over his head, refusing to speak to his band mates while calling himself “the little bitch.” This would have been when—1999? By which time Pavement had been together 10 years. According to the calculations of some creationists, this made them even older than Earth. Me, I believe Malkmus was just burned out. He needed a new start, a shift in musical direction, and some fresh faces around the 4-foot tour bus bong. Like the song goes, flux = rad.

For a so-called slacker, Malkmus sure didn’t waste any time, putting together The Jicks by 2000. Since then the Jicks—they’re Malkmus on guitar and vocals, Mike Clark on keyboards and guitar, Joanna Bolme on bass, and Jake Morris on the skins—have released six very fine LPs, although I don’t think I’m in the minority when I say their recorded work hasn’t quite measured up to Pavement at its finest. What once sounded effortless now sounds labored, although to Malkmus’ credit the labor seems like one of love.

Then again, Malkmus told a Spin interviewer a while back that “[The Jicks] is a live thing, and it’s probably better live than it is on record, in a way. The records aren’t as bad as Grateful Dead records, but we’ve become a more in-the-moment thing as we’re getting older.” (Funny, because I can distinctly hear the Grateful Dead in their sound; stare into the abyss of Shakedown Street long enough, and you just might wind up making Shakedown Street.)

That said The Jicks’ latest, 2013’s Wig Out at Jagbags, is their best yet. 2011’s superb Mirror Traffic was a tough act to follow, but Wig Out pulls it off, featuring as it does both songs that recall the Pavement of yore (“Houston Hades,” “Cinnamon and Lesbians,” “Lariat”) and others (the slick soul move “J Smoov,” “Independence Street”) that sound like nothing Malkmus has attempted before.

Opener “Planetary Motion” is a herky-jerky rocker that opens with one oddly tuned guitar. Then Malkmus comes in singing, followed by some power chords that shift the song from staccato to smooth as molasses. And back and forth it goes, until the great growling, snarling guitar solo over which sails the oddly tuned guitar that opened the song. “The Janitor Revealed” starts out with that old-school Pavement flow, and includes some unusually sunny and direct lyrics by Malkmus: “We were put on this Earth to shine/Destined for greatness by design.” Then comes the dizzying chorus, which features some cool backing vocals, followed by a prog-like instrumental interlude that segues into some easy listening. The Jicks then return to the chorus and its strange back-up vocals, after which the song degenerates into some final guitar caterwaul.

“Lariat” recalls old school Pavement, with its effortless groove, great lyrics, and ecstatic ending. It opens with a simple guitar riff, the drums come in, and “Lariat” proceeds to pleasantly lope along as Malkmus sings, “We lived on Tennyson and venison and The Grateful Dead/It was my honey summer torture mystic stumble bummer.” The whole shebang comes to an end with Malkmus repeating, “We grew up listening to the music from the best decade ever” while a guitar whoops it up and the whole band briefly kicks out the jams. “Houston Hades” begins with some guitar mayhem that opens up into one cool and breezy melody. Malkmus sings, “If Love is Hades/For all you Slim Shadys/It’s no wonder he smashes guitars/Turn the stage into a cool crime scene,” and is followed by a sweet jam featuring guitars and organ, after which Malkmus and Company repeat, “Turnin’ it away/Turnin’ it away/Turnin’ it away/’Til it tears and falls apart.”

“Shibboleth” opens with some sinister bass, one freaky guitar, and keyboards, and features several very dissonant instrumental interludes I love to death, not to mention a fantastic guitar freak-out that takes the song out. I’d declare this one stunning but for the lyrics—there isn’t a cool catch phrase in the whole batch—but it’s still a freak’s delight. As for “J Smoov,” it’s a smoov-flowing easy listener, complete with B. Bacharach horns and soaring strings. Ah, but the melody is lovely, Malkmus plays soul man, and the concluding instrumental is a thing of beauty, with a trumpet and one reverberating guitar building to an ecstatic climax as Malkmus repeats, “End of the see-saw/End of the see-saw.”

The short and anti-nostalgic romp “Rumble at The Rainbo” opens with a sample (“This one’s for you, granddad!” by British punkers Erazerhead), then Malkmus sings, “Come and join us in this punk rock tomb/Come slam dancin’ with some ancient dudes/We are returnin’/Returnin’ to our roots/No new material/Just cowboy boots/Woo-hoo!” The song features some great guitar riffs and backing vocals, and Malkmus disparagingly repeating, “No one here has changed/And no one ever will,” until a brief ska breakdown and some song-ending guitar sprawl. “Skyjunk” is a great propulsive tune driven by some funky horns, and bops merrily along Malkmus delivers a wild and wooly guitar solo that shuts down just in time for that blaring horn section to take the song out like a stoner Tijuana Brass.

The slow-burning and remarkably linear (no big chord or tempo changes, like zip, as in nada) “Independence Street” opens with a big echoing guitar, then Malkmus sings, “I don’t have the stomach for your brandy/I can hardly sip your tea.” That big guitar dominates the song, laying down long and lovely lines of notes after each chorus, before Malkmus shuts things down singing, “Riffin’ in this church/I just might convert/There’s no way to leave/From Independence Street.” The short “Scattergories” opens with a big nifty organ and Malkmus engaging in some berserk word-slinging, before the whole thing explodes into a big instrumental. Then Malkmus sings, “Mott the Hoople’s/Got no scruples/With those groupie Janes” before the song explodes in another wonderful guitar fandango. Then Malkmus lets out a great scream—and finis.

“Cinnamon and Lesbians” is a brilliant tune, one mellow ride that reminds me of—yep—the Grateful Dead. “Shanghaied in Oregon,” sings Malkmus, “Cinnamon and lesbians,” then “I’ve been tripping my face off since breakfast/Taking in this windswept afternoon.” Malkmus plays a really nice solo in the middle, then the song continues until the band breaks into one hippy-dippy jam that takes the song out. Album closer “Surreal Teenagers” is one oddly put-together song; it starts on a slow, very Dead-like note—that could be Jerry Garcia on guitar—with the volume picking up on the choruses. Then Malkmus sings, “If you choose to copulate/You’d better get home fast” before the song stops—and wham, explodes into a great melodic guitar barrage with Malkmus repeating “Surreal Teenagers.” Then the Dead-like passage is reiterated, and—kaboom! Back come the gigantic guitars and crashing drums, with Malkmus repeating “Surreal Teenagers” and then, as the guitars quiet down, “Wah. Wah? Waah?? Wah wah wah wah wah!”

Pavement may well have been the best band of their day. But there’s no way back to those gold soundz or that summer babe because Heaven is a truck that doesn’t run no more and hey, like the man says, you gotta pay your dues before you pay the rent. Besides, who needs ‘em? Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks are today’s rumble at the Rainbo, and they’re out there kicking keister and making albums that are better than Grateful Dead albums, even if they sound more than a little like Grateful Dead albums, and maybe (I’ve had some time to give it some thought) even better than a few of those ancient Pavement records, and you can spit on a stranger and shoot the singer if that ain’t the God’s honest truth.

But you can live in the past if you want. Me, I intend to wig out to Wig Out at Jagbags, a most snazzy slab of future past that convinces me Stephen Malkmus, who has a kid now and probably changes nappies, still has plenty of great music inside him. And if I’m wrong, so what? Cuz I’m over the turnstiles and out on the track, there are ways of living and it’s the way I’m living, and I’ve got my headphones on and the train is coming and I’m listening to “Cinnamon and Lesbians” and, like, everything is beautiful, copacetic, so much back on Shady Lane Fillmore Jive, and the whole damn world is one cool, and I mean very cool, crime scene.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • dan_oz

    “Lariat” has been my antipodean summer anthem this year.
    “We grew up listening to…

  • Martijn

    Both thumbs up for the writing… and one more for good luck.

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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