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The angst harnessed by ’90s college rock bands was compelling, however in the ensuing decades, that same angst proved difficult to display on new records, especially as the heroes of the genre faced elder statesmanship. Entering a whole new millennia, Weezer, the Pixies, and their fellow alumni have left the jungle as toothless tigers. Meet the exception to the rule: Stephen Malkmus.
Emerging in the post-90s era with Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, his brand of lonely alternative-rock-meets-absurdist-slackerdom, which held Pavement so dear to critics’ and listeners’ hearts, has stood the test of his age as well as time.
In fact, the band’s sixth and latest outing, Wig Out At Jagbags, continues where its predecessor, Mirror Traffic, left off. The music has softened and the album operates knowing full well that Malkmus is no longer a twentysomething slacker, but a fortysomething who can’t “stomach [his] brandy“, can “hardly sip [his] tea“.
He’s in his ‘sitting down outside’ period, most evident when instruments outside of the standard rock and roll fare are introduced to complement the guitars and drums. Houston Hades, for example, is pulled along by a parred-down piano, which makes a clever contrast to the spiralling guitar and banging drums that crescendo on the intro.
On J Smoov, an acoustic guitar and vocals are accompanied by an organ, before horns blare and solo for the first time. Strangely yet courageously, Chartjunk even enters big band territory, with horns shining and the pitter-patter of bongos carrying the beat as Malkmus edges on crooning. They’re stark contrasts to the Pavement days but nonetheless sewn from the same tapestry.
For Pavement fans, there’s still something. The guitars are still meaty and unpredictable, and there’s throbbing bass lines aplenty. Album opener Planetary Motion has stark, anthemic guitars that stomp before an extended jam rips through the middle. Following on, the solo on The Janitor Revealed contains mountainous guitar tones that are quintessentially Pavement-esque.
A politically charged number, Shibboleth plays with the darker tones of Pavement, driven by a coarse, menacing bass line, that sounds like a Pixies song unto itself. On album closer Surreal Teenagers, the band take classic rock tropes to wonderful, sprawling sonic levels.
Much like the instrumentation, Malkmus still lives and breathes the Pavement mentality lyrically. On single Cinnamon and Lesbians, his genius shines through as he leads the listener along before hitting them with a characteristically snarky line: “I’ve been tripping my face off since breakfast / Taking in this windswept afternoon“.
His lyrics swing between savant-like and absurd and it must be said that their delivery was made better by the swagger of his former band. On the aforementioned Chartjunk he states, “I don’t need your windbag wisdom / And all your restrictions“, while on the throwaway Scattegories, he darkly skewers group board games, along with society.
Rumble At The Rainbow is Malkmus at his best, a tongue-in-cheek homage to punks and quite possibly the 90s alternative scene: “Can you remember / The thrill and the rush / You’re not out of touch / Come tonight, you’ll see / No one here is changed / No one ever will“.
Wig Out At Jagbags is just that: a switched-on exercise in inertia. Even Malkmus’ move from Portland to Berlin, done, his wife says, out of practicality, has done little to derail Malkmus’ demeanour.
And while inertia has harmed other bands and detoothed them, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks take advantage of it, and so should their fans. You can never have too much of a good thing, especially when it can still bite.