Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

Pig Lib

(Matador; 2003)

By Amir Nezar | 10 October 2007

When I first listened to Slanted and Enchanted, I thought to myself: "This Malkmus dude is a fuckin' weirdo." These tunes sounded like they were tossed onto paper during a careless LSD trip filled with scenes of fuzzed pelicans speaking in literary garble. The pure, natural flouting of traditional song-writing was initially a turnoff. But I was younger then, and on subsequent listens this quirky songwriter suddenly struck me as immensely original, the low-budget production of the album not only endearing, but the only possible way for his twisty ideas to get across.

Of course I was relatively stunned when I listened to Terror Twilight. Here was Malkmus on a tightened record, but it was produced by Nigel Godrich? The songs, they had none of the splintered, fuzzed out energy of his early stuff. This was a mature record in that it was tame. Malkmus' goofiness was toned down and the often overbearing seriousness of the thing gutted the tunes of his characteristic idiosyncrasy. The lyrical oddity was still there, but not the musical oddity. A great deal of it was somewhat sweet pop with enough effort, but this didn't seem like a consolidation of sound as much as sigh in many different directions, expertly produced, but with no coherent soul. I, among others, was somewhat alienated.

Perhaps it was because I'd heard Terror Twilight that I didn't bother picking up Stephen Malkmus. Perhaps I'd given up. The sound I'd just heard sounded like something a Malkmus clone might come up with, not the original, tripped-out man himself. And despite the praise for Pig Lib, my skepticism was not overridden; there had been equal praise for Terror Twilight and his self-titled solo debut. It took a trip up to New Jersey for a Radiohead concert, where I saw, of all opening acts for a band like Radiohead, the man himself. Malkmus and the Jicks. My expectations were low. And I was flattened by their performance. It was, hands down, the best opening act I had ever seen (disregarding the fact that a great number of opening acts just plain suck). Pig Lib was in my collection within two weeks.

It was like a homecoming. The noodling, limping guitar line on "Water and a Seat," the opener, had slinked its way straight out of Slanted and Enchanted. The nontraditional tempo had all the trappings of Malkmus originality. The slightly off-key guitar, somewhat distorted and accompanied by Malkmus' aggressive, instantly recognizable voice got me grinning. Here he was toying around, his voice leaping into yelps and acrobatics like a little kid's before settling back down to his lovely blues-touched guitar. The song's construction was great. Admittedly, it didn't blow me away, but it did make me feel all warm inside.

In fact, that's pretty much the way the entire album goes. I would say that it is fairly original if it wasn't a return (albeit not mimicking or imitative) to the days of Slanted and Enchanted, with a bit of Wowee Zowee. This isn't a bad thing; it's just that Malkmus isn't playing with anything particularly innovative. If he wasn't such a talented songwriter, if he didn't have so much character, if the guitar lines here weren't so damn ear-pleasing, then I might throw this album in the general pile. I mean, his early stuff had half-faded from my memory by now. And yet, this was different enough that I didn't get the same effect just by popping in Slanted and Enchanted.

There's really good stuff nearly all the way through. My current favorite, "(Do Not Feed the) Oyster," finishes out the triad of solid "come-back-into-my-arms-Pavement-fans" intro tracks. The Jicks, all musically talented, provide solid background for what is obviously Malkmus' stage, laying down consistent, solid bass with excellent percussion for his oscillating guitar. Then Malkmus kicks into high gear with a rising and falling guitar line that's shortly followed by reverse tape loops, before layering on some organ accompaniment to finish up a feel-good climax. A bluesy guitar freak-out rides out to the sunset on a raft of shimmering cymbals.

The only unfortunate drawback is that there are tracks here are tracks here that are catchy, but which rely too much on Malkmus' guitar work, instead of pure song-writing strength. "Vanessa from Queens" is precisely one of those tracks, with only half a heart and Malkmus' syrupy guitar trying to hold up a relatively bland song.

It's a matter of the very good moments outweighing the just okay ones. Malkmus tips the balance, thankfully, towards the former. Songs like "Vanessa from Queens" and "Craw Song" (a somewhat weak track, despite great lyrics about a criss-cross of love interests), and the over-extension of "1% of One" are more than made up for. Songs like "Dark Wave" do poke into sound-change, with a positively Spoon guitar-line, toying with lush, aggressive atmospherics. The closer, "Us," is driven by a thick beat and superb melody, finishing out a solid album with a rather different, more heady sound that seems to indicate Malkmus now has a good idea of where he's going from here.

The key though, is that he does need to move somewhere from here. Pig Lib isn't a replication of Pavement's sound, but if the next effort from Malkmus is too similar to Pig Lib, then his direction will indeed feel like a rehash. For now he can be content that he's laid down something of which he can be proud. This album will certainly enchant new listeners with its warm, laid-back energy, and will certainly make Pavement fans happy until Malkmus rocks us (hopefully) with something new.