Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Wig Out at Jagbags

Stephen Malkmus turns the corner on his post-Pavement career with pivotal #6 as a Jick.

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ALBUM: Wig Out at Jagbags

ARTIST: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks



On “Lariat,” the single from the Jicks’ latest album, Stephen Malkmus sings on the bridge to the chorus: “You’re not what you aren’t / You aren’t what you’re not,” and as with any tautology, there is that well duh moment (see Gertrude Stein’s invocation of the law of identity: “A rose is a rose is a rose”). Malkmus, though, through the power of antimetabole, the convolution of contractions, and consonant end-stops, reminds us of how opaquely we present ourselves to others, how identity can be a counterintuitive enterprise. If you dilate the contractions (“You are not what you are not”), it is a perfectly parallel double-negative, which in turn, makes it a double entendre (see Donald Rumsfeld’s “There are things we don’t know we don’t know”). Ponder Malkmus’ poetry at your own peril. Hazard his allusions on a day when the Google gods are in your favor. These are the rhetorical wormholes and abstruse proper nouns that will eat away at your precious time.

Wig Out at Jagbags (Matador 2014) is yet another post-Pavement identity crisis, and it feels just as good as it did with his last five releases under his solonym. The Jicks run the genre gamut from prog rock to alt-country to post-punk to jam rock to blues rock, and rarely does a single track settle into a discrete bin. This has become the Jicks’ niche; whereas the designation “alternative” once referred to the heterogeneity implicit in independent music, many indie labels have succumbed to de-marginalizing their most nourishable underdogs. It seems appropriate that Malkmus, one of alternative music’s darling usual suspects since Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted (1992), continues to redefine the genre by preserving the heterogeneity. Sometimes, it’s transcendental; other times, it just sounds fussy. Either way, his integrity obliges him to be stubbornly “alternative.” Many reviewers are keen to point out that this album marks the pivotal moment for Malkmus in which he has written more albums for the Jicks than he has for Pavement. He has earned the bittersweet retrospection in “Rumble at the Rainbo” (“No one here has changed / and no one ever will”) and the sentimentality in “Lariat” (“We grew up listening to the music from the best decade ever / I’m talking ‘bout the A-D-D’s”).

Malkmus remains the reigning poet laureate of the genre. His whimsically consonant and assonant lyrics are loaded with double entendre, innuendo, pun, metaphor, satire, sardonicism, and irony. Some of the songs’ far-flung allusions feel like an erudite hipster’s Pinterest curation (on “Lariat,” venison, Tennyson, and Grateful Dead are separated by a few scant articles). Before you go smacking your head, though: as always, the Malkmus punch line façade wears off after the first few listens, and universal truths threaten to buoy in the most unlikely of places: “Love is Hades for all you Slim Shadys.” Isn’t it so? On most songs, the lyrics are delivered with a keyless world-weary monotone and the occasional Prozac-induced bellow. Occasionally, you’ll hear a pun that was never there due to the latter inflection. Ever the virtuosic lyricist, Malkmus’ lead guitar also delivers classic rock solos with high-fret play, bridges with jam band reverb, and cosmic noodling.

At its best, Wig Out is a finessed fusion, a big album on a tight schedule of just forty-five minutes. On it, you can hear the Jicks amalgamate the likes of The Allman Brothers, Primus, and Weezer with occasional forays into mock protopunk and snotty Fat Wreck jiffies. After defusing for a bit in the middle, it hits its stride again for tracks 8, 9, and 11 (“Chartjunk,” “Independence Street,” and “Cinnamon and Lesbians”). Embedded somewhere within these three songs—I’m convinced—is the genome for what a Jick actually is. Other songs seem to merely satisfy the arc of the palette, to pay proportionate attention to their progressive chops and to modulate on command as with the soft rock track “J Smoov.”

In songs such as “Shibboleth,” it sounds as if Malkmus is sleepy; the only enthusiasm in his recorded voice is from the general relief of reaching the end of a verse. He averts disaster on several tracks by cutting them way short (see “Scattegories”). However, the rock-operatic “Surreal Teenagers” is so misplaced and meandering at the end of the album, it feels like it must have made some backroom deal with the guillotine. It’s no “Pinball Wizard.” It’s not even up to snuff with the material from The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love. It exists to baffle at the end of an otherwise cogent album; it humanizes Malkmus for including such an inchoate demo, but humanizing or not, the album suffers because of its inclusion.

Of all the references (and there are many to choose from: see “Shanghaied in Oregon,” “Condoleezza’s Rice,” “Mott the Hoople’s got no scruples,” “dropping dimes… dipsy-doo… and the D-league in Wichita”), one is worth dilating. The “ramblin’ wreck” from “Lariat” is not just alliterative self-deprecation. Rather, it comes from the Georgia Tech fight song: “I’m a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech / and a hell of an engineer / a helluva, helluva, helluva, helluva, hell of an engineer.” The double entendre recasts the songs on Wig Out as fight songs; it paves the way for a faux-timorous Malkmus to once again claim his indie throne. Not only is he one helluva an alt music engineer, he is a 47-year-old one at that. Good to know that while pushing a half-century, Malkmus has fight, has endurance. He is not entirely delirious, not yet completely wigged out.

“You’re not what you aren’t / You aren’t what you’re not”

1. Planetary Motion
The album opens with the sound of a siren, achieved by two guitars harmonized at D-flat, but which then fall to B-flat. This is a fair-enough opener for this identity crisis of a record. The Jicks show just about all of their cards as they dovetail genre #1 with genre #2, etc. in this palette piece. The track’s jaws open up with drop-tuned wah, but the momentum is retarded by short-circuiting polyrhythm. The confident siren that spools at the beginning of the track loses its reverb somewhere near the end, and those D-flats and B-flats devolve into candid hammer-ons.6.3
2. The Janitor Revealed
This song is satirically anthropocentric, a faux exploration of humanity’s purpose on Earth. The meta-commentary begins as Malkmus teaches us how to listen along: “Excuse me while I jump a cue / I’ve got more important things to do.” A glam rock chorus à la Bowie’s “Space Oddity” transitions into more minor key harmonic hammer-ons. It induces nausea in a way only a prog rock carousel can. Just before you hurl, though, the guitar riffs find novel ways out of the minor key into a few late moments of levity. 7.4
3. Lariat
Featuring some of Malkmus’ most playful rhymes to date, this jovial track is the album’s standout single as good as Mirror Traffic’s “No One Is (As I Are Be)” or Real Emotional Trash’s “Cold Son.” It is in the vein of Dinosaur Jr. or Built to Spill, but more melodic and with facile sentimentality. There is a randomly perceptible Randy Newman piano accompaniment. The track ends on an ephemeral piano ragtime swoop.9.7
4. Houston Hades
“Houston Hades” picks up where “Lariat” leaves off, except the piano’s swoop has been amplified, putting some riffing distance between an obvious single and the meat of the album. It eventually settles into a lazy rhythmic ballad with his signature falsetto singing the American dystopic. Each verse ends with an ooh (a prolonged you and two) that sounds like a car salesman with a megaphone. The laziness resumes with a palm-muted riff over smooth bass and steady drums. The overall effect is similar to Weezer’s WTF “Beverly Hills” single, but with ample artistic integrity. The words “tearing it away” are repeated until the song fades into a punctuating celestial spring.9.1
5. Shibboleth
The swampy electric bassist riffing at the beginning of this track is Les Claypool’s silhouette doppelgänger. And while it could be a passable Primus track, albeit the timbre of the vocals are that of Art Alexakis of Everclear, the lyrics are distant and unnecessarily abstract. Despite a late chorus about triangles and/or right angles, which could have been fun, there is a pervasive antagonistic malaise to the sludgy rhythm that culminates in the guitar equivalent of nails-on-the-chalkboard. Malkmus eighth-note picks as he slides a finger—his middle one if I had to guess—up the fretboard, pooh-poohing all known scales. The arbitrary melee of ascendant notes ironically evaporates into the most soulful track of the album, “J Smoov.” Perhaps too, the most soulful track of Malkmus’ career. 6.6
6. J Smoov
“J Smoov” is the steamiest track Malkmus has written since Mirror Traffic’s “Senator.” It invokes soft rock/retreat alt akin to Weezer’s “Island in the Sun.” It begins, “I can’t afford to want you” as he musters the mojo to coerce his beloved to come with him to a more ethereal plane, one replete with, say, brass and strings. At one point, I swear the sax plays a precocious “na-na na-na boo-boo.” It’s unclear whether Xanadu is a reference to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” or the 1980 romantic musical fantasy, but suffice it to say, Malkmus knows how to take a daydream trip. His characteristic fraction falsetto (notes that only make it three-quarters of the way there) doesn’t feel like an asinine aesthetic choice, but rather an effortful key of entreaty. This track is likely not dedicated to his loyal fanbase, but perhaps to his wife, Jessica Hutchins. A single ambient sixteenth note at the end rockets this song from the bedroom into the stratosphere. The whole track could be played during a romcom montage. After it peaks, there’s an acoustic post-coital coda.8.1
7. Rumble at the Rainbo
On NOFX’s woebegone “13 Stitches,” Fat Mike vets the punk scene with melancholic retrospection. It’s a poignant song, but it sounds nothing like the music it elegizes. At just 1:43, Malkmus’ “Rumble at the Rainbo” is a smug satirical survey of the same scene. It is more like James Murphy’s “Losing My Edge” than Fat Mike’s despondent historiography. It is Malkmus’ most off-key number. In it, one can hear the Groovy Ghoulies, Lagwagon, or a rattled Ben Folds. In this apunkalyptic time lapse, Malkmus’ question: “What generation punks are we?” postures him as much an antagonist as he is an apathetic amnesiac. I get this priggish smirk on my face every time I hear Malkmus compare the contemporary scene to a punk-rock tomb. As they say: Zing!7.5
8. Chartjunk
The rollick resumes. In this song, an imagined dialogue between NBA egomaniacs Brandon Jennings and Scott Skiles ensues. In an interview with Andrea Warner of CBC Music, Malkmus compares the score to the dispute as Canadian rock, specifically citing Bachman Turner Overdrive. I hear a harder edge at times too—maybe ZZ Top? All joking aside, this is the track, for me, where all of the elements come together: the composition is tight; the brass and guitar are aware of each other; Malkmus’ lyrics are only vaguely self-congratulatory. Some of Malkmus’ best guitar playing to date can be found in the last third of the song, clocking in at just under a minute. The last note of the adrenaline solo is seamlessly subsumed by the return of the majestic horns, which close out the song like a marching band. The guitar is not exactly virtuosic nor is it self-indulgent, but Malkmus wholeheartedly asserts himself. (“Independence Street” feels like the cigarette break after the triumphal “Chartjunk.”) 10.0
9. Independence Street
This song leads with Malkmus’ wily tongue stretched out: “I don’t have the stomach for your brandy / I can hardly sip your tea / Suckin’ on a Cert / That ain’t no dessert…” There are more jam band and rock vibes here, emulating the likes of The Allman Brothers, Phish, or Moe. Despite being barely three minutes, it feels wide and improvisational. The song cultivates a continuous cosmic mood, and rather than accelerate into a new movement, it ends as sweetly as it began.9.0
10. Scattegories
Malkmus has mastered the art of miniaturizing his less realized compositions into fleet punk gems. Even if it fails to impress, at least he isn’t so gratuitous as to abuse our precious time. It’s a trippy song, lyrically incoherent with cryptic portmanteaus. One wonders if these lyrics are actual plays from a game of Scattegories. Some of the more inscrutable (and, therefore, memorable?) include: “Condoleezza’s Rice scattered on the floor” consecutive with “Mott the Hoople’s got no scruples with those groupie Janes.” Then again, what is cryptic to us is probably everyday perception for Malkmus. A few resonances from earlier in the album include the D-flat/B-flat siren from the first track (now played by an organ) and the grungy Mudhoney rhythm from “Shibboleth.”7.5
11. Cinnamon and Lesbians
Another tight track, “Cinnamon and Lesbians” could be accused of being fussy due to its various time signatures. It sounds like a Rube Goldberg machine, a series of pulleys and levers attached to Gregg Allman or Derek Trucks, but everything—somehow, everything—goes off without a hitch. A command of dynamics (on the composition and production level) allows for the transitions out of verses to be casual and slow-mo. The clever two-measure bridges feel as complimentary as the Jicks’ remedy: “We’ve got a cure for your head lice / and we’ll do it for free.”9.0
12. Surreal Teenagers
At first it sounds something like the Jewish folk song, “Hava Nagila.” Or maybe a Casio keyboard preset—“Greensleeves,” is it? A howl that hints at Halloween. Arabic lobby music. And then Malkmus’ voice is singing about “reverse creation,” and the freak folk lyrics continue to fly tangential to Wig Out’s curve. It sounds sinister and cultish, and despite Malkmus’ role as a prognosticator, you can’t help but feel he is the one doing the brainwashing. Do you remember the first time you heard the term rock opera, and you thought, That sounds like a bad idea, but then The Who’s Tommy proved you wrong. Too, David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust (against all odds) kicks ass. To be fair, “Surreal Teenagers” doesn’t bill itself as a rock opera. Due to its plodding plot, though, it is prog rock masquerading as rock opera. The nebulous sounds and wonky transitions are the musical equivalent of origami (the kind which you are obliged to make with paper napkins, and with each fold, you fail more and more miserably; it crumples in your unsure fingers until it merely looks like you’ve used the napkin for its intended purpose). You’ll cringe when you hear Malkmus use the word reconnoiter, a word Les Claypool similarly imposed on a song in his post-Primus solo career. Come to think of it, “Surreal Teenagers” is reminiscent of “Cosmic Highway” of Les Claypool’s Flying Frog Brigade. You get the sense of this future anthropological tour guide leading you somewhere you really didn’t want to go. It’s an inconvenient voyage, and because you’re aware of it being the last track on the album, you get this stomach-flipping sense that it’s a one-way ride. This late fallibility is disconcerting to you, and you don’t want to begrudge Stephen Malkmus this one onerous stinker—this being his sixth as a Jick and all—so rather than fold your arms and swear off Wig Out, you do what’s only right: you begin again with the first track and write a brief note to self: “Next time, discontinue after ‘Cinnamon and Lesbians.’”4.5
Written by Lawrence Lenhart
Lawrence Lenhart received his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, where he was the editor-in-chief of Sonora Review. He is the recipient of two Foundation Awards, two Taube Awards, and the Laverne Harrell Clark Award in Fiction.

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