By Michael Lello
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks’ music is easy to listen to. The sounds are catchy and jangly, and the words are a free-flowing mishmash of wordplay and in-jokes. A very pleasant experience, indeed.
Trying to analyze the Pavement lead vocalist and guitarist’s intentions on their latest album — the typically cryptically titled “Wig Out At Jagbags” – is another enterprise entirely.
Aren’t indie rock dudes supposed to hate hippies? Then why are you playing a riff from “St. Stephen?” Bongos? Sweet Doobie Brothers vocal harmonies? Swanky horns? Are these put-ons or homages?
The group, which delves into psychedelia and other elements of “classic rock” more than Pavement’s trademark ’90s indie rock, opens “Jagbags” with “Planetary Motion,” a title seemingly more at home on an old Yes or Pink Floyd record. It’s loose and lithe, but slides into a darker jam, with heavy guitar chords providing a bed for a double-guitar faceoff that is equal parts Allman Brothers and Dinosaur Jr. “Houston Hades” is smooth and light, with a 1970s rock radio vibe. “Love is Hades for all you Slim Shadies,” sings Malkmus.
“J Smoov” is built on an easy-listening guitar riff and augmented by a maudlin Burt Bacharach horn. Again, it’s tough to tell if Malkmus is offering a send-up, but like a book enjoyed either at face value or as a deeper commentary, it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s enjoyed at all.
“Rumble At The Rainbow” opens like the theme song to a ’70s cartoon about a fictitious band and finds Malkmus taking shots at his own generation of scenesters confronting middle age. “Come and join us in this punk rock tomb.” It’s not unlike The Hold Steady’s ruminations on aging punks, and how you can’t go home again but there’s something pure about trying. “No one’s changed here, and no one ever will,” sings Malkmus.
“Chartjunk” is peppy and rambling, showcasing Malkmus’ ability to jangle without delving into tired folk-rock tropes – no 12-string Rickenbacker is detectable here. “If you flood the lane on me brother, watch out for a step-back three,” sings a joyous Malkmus, an avowed basketball junky and fantasy player. Over rolling rhythms, bongos and breezy vocal harmonies, he adds, “I don’t need your windbag wisdom and all the restrictions.” The sardonic wordplay continues in “Scattegories”: “Condoleezza’s rice” and “Mott The Hoople’s got no scruples.”
“Cinnamon and Lesbians” is one of “Jagbags’” better tunes, vaguely Pavement-y and jammy. “Shanghaied in Oregon,” opens Malkmus, a Portland native; fittingly, the song’s music video owes a bit to the hipster homage/parody comedy series “Portlandia.” “I’ve been trippin’ my face off since breakfast,” he sings, and he plays a recurring guitar line from the Grateful Dead’s “St. Stephen” throughout. “Life should be free/ Take what you need,” he sings, either borrowing from or making fun of the utopian hippie ideal.
Malkmus and the Jicks – Joanna Blome (bass), Mike Clark (guitar, keyboards) and Jake Morris (drums), who replaced uber-talented former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss in the Jicks – close the record with the freewheeling and stream-of-consciousness “Surreal Teenagers.” It sounds as if Malkmus is making up both the music and lyrics as he’s going, with his band tentatively waiting for his next signal; that is, until the three-minute mark, when they all lock in and go down a guitar-heavy rabbit hole and end up in a landscape similar to “Real Emotional Trash,” the Jicks’ brilliant 2008 record.
Many bands that made their bones in the ’90s are making comebacks with their old material or new material that sounds like their own material, but Malkmus was never part of that club — see for example his swipes at contemporaries Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots in Pavement’s “Range Life” — so he doesn’t have to live up to those idioms. As a gatekeeper of cool, he’s free to do what he wants, pulling form disparate influences that you might not think are hip – hell, that he might not think are hip – and making them cool simply by giving them the Malkmus treatment.
It’s all enough to make your head spin, but leave the debates to the wonks; the results are what matters, and as usual, Malkmus has come up with a winner, a record that is inherently post-rock in its tenor while keeping its feet firmly planted in various rock traditions. It’s a weirdly welcome addition to his catalog.