Fun fact: Stephen Malkmus has now released one more album (six total) with his band the Jicks, than he recorded in the entirety of his tenure fronting alt-rock legends, Pavement. For us ‘90’s nostalgics now settling into a more steady and sedate form of adulthood, this only serves to reinforce how fast the time has flown.
In the 13 years that have passed since his post-Pavement self-titled debut, Malkmus has kept his legion of loyal fans effortlessly immersed in his rickety and off-kilter approaches to songwriting. Sometimes snark-edged and economically condensed, and other times sprawling and filled with his self-proclaimed “shaggy-ass psychedelic solos,” Malkmus albums are always breezy, peculiarly interesting listens rather than dull, staid affairs.
Malkmus’ latest, Wig Out at Jagbags, falls into the economical side of his catalog. It’s a dozen tightly compressed tunes that hum along at a brisk pace, yet leave enough space for woozy improvisation, soulful horn fills, and emotive guitar squeals. Recording in a rural Belgian barn with his longtime Jicks associates at his side lends the album a feeling of balance and association; there’s obviously an intuitive trust built in amongst the musicians that helps solidify the album’s musical detours.
Whereas Pavement tended to play hard and fast with their sound, the Jicks have always indulged Malkmus’ more adventurous side. There are usually some musically inclined eyebrow raising surprises on all his albums, and here is no exception. The brassy outro of “J Smoov”, the Thin Lizzy-meets-Billy Joel dynamics of “Chartjunk”, and the loud/fast/loud template for album-closing “Surreal Teenagers” being prime examples of tunes that may not have worked out quite so well in the confines of the Pavement recording spaces.
Lyrically, as always, Malkmus’ words are full of esoteric references and open to multiple interpretations, yet naturally charming and unassuming. Basketball features prominently, and is worked into the storyline of a song as only Malkmus can: “In one ear and out of the other/If you feel the urge to share/Play the game ‘cause you’re not my mother/Actually I’m not contractually obliged to care” goes the aforementioned “Chartjunk” which tells the story of a star-crossed player/coach relationship weighing down the fortunes of the sinking Milwaukee Bucks franchise. (And for those as curious as I was, the “jagbags” of the album’s title apparently derives from a pejorative frequently used in Malkmus’ fantasy basketball message board.)
Elsewhere, Malkmus continues to embody the rock star everyman, who when not touring the world, could just as easily live in your subdivision. He reminisces on days spent “listening to the music of the best decade ever” (“the catchy earworm “Lariat”), gazes outdoors while “tripping his face off” (“Cinnamon and Lesbians”), and sings the praises of various board games (“Scattegories”). It’s sometimes funny stuff, yet sounds oddly profound when filtered through the Malkmus prism.
As the days of Pavement move farther into the rearview mirror of history, Malkmus continues to chug along, doing what he does while throwing in some new wrinkles every couple of years. It’s a reassuring rock and roll staple and one that shows no signs of slowing. He’ll always be the face of his previous band, but it’s his solo career that has endured and prospered longer than many may have predicted. Here’s hoping that he keeps rolling along and continues to follow the muse where it leads him.