Friday, 10 January 2014

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - "Wig Out at Jagbags"

Wig Out at Jagbags is Stephen Malkmus’ sixth album with the Jicks – an impressive tally for this elder statesman of indie rock, and one more than he ever managed with his former band Pavement. Like previous album Mirror Traffic, Jagbags finds plenty of time for noodly guitar passages, but it’s not quite so self-consciously jammy as some of the more indulgent Jicks albums. This middle ground suits middle-aged Malkmus well – it allows his music to stretch out and breathe more than it was ever allowed to in Pavement, but the shorter song structures mean that the spotlight is never away from his words for too long.

Talking of lyrics, Malkmus is on pretty good form here. Other than the album title, there’s not much in the way of wacky wordplay – this is either a blessing or a bummer, depending on how much you like Brighten the Corners. Instead, we get a bunch of wry, vague musings on aging and comfortable living. Lyrically and musically though, Malkmus’ tongue is still firmly in his cheek, opening the slapstick punk of ‘Rumble at the Rainbo’ with a shout of “This one’s for you, Grandad!” before breaking down into a cod-reggae ending. The song’s main refrain of “Come here tonight and you’ll see, no-one has changed and no-one ever will,” is most likely an ironic joke at his own settling-down, but as always with Malkmus we can never quite tell.

As with so much of Pavement’s finest work, Jagbags is an album with a relaxed, autumnal feel. Its freewheeling nature means that even the faster songs only rarely feel in danger of falling off their axis. This is not necessarily a bad thing – after all, rollercoasters are still exciting even when we know the path set out for them. Solid guitar playing and frequent tempo shifts, like the false start at the beginning of ‘Houston Hades’, make up for some of the more dead-end meandering, and the production is impressive throughout, especially the brass section on ‘Chartjunk’ and ‘J Smoov’. The latter – a delicate ballad that builds to a subtle climax – is an easy highlight, and one of the best songs that Malkmus has written since latter-day Pavement, calling to mind the gentle lilt of ‘Major Leagues’.

Jagbags easily ranks in the upper tier of Jicks albums, possibly second only to the debut, which housed some of Malkmus’ most laser-focused songwriting. Despite the impressive production, it could do to be a bit more varied tonally, but rarely for a Jicks album, you won’t find yourself wanting to skip ahead. There are very few weak tracks, and the highlights are sensibly spread throughout, resulting in one of his most immediately satisfying albums in years. A wonderful beginning to to the year.

Highlights: ‘Lariat’; ‘J Smoov’; ‘Rumble at the Rainbo’

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