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Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks - Pig Lib

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Artist: Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks

Album: Pig Lib

Label: Matador

Review date: Mar. 17, 2003

Pavement Who?

Pavement is dead. It had to be so, for many reasons. Something was draining out of Pavement, something vital. You could hear it on Terror Twilight, which contained some great songs but betrayed a growing listlessness. You could feel it at the shows, which were as shamblingly brilliant as ever but nonetheless felt like performances from a group on its last legs. What made Pavement so great was fragile and light, too fragile for the band to last. At some point, it would start to go stale. Stephen Malkmus and the rest of Pavement understood this, and they quietly broke up.

At the time, it felt like the end of an era, and in hindsight, it was. The salad days of indie rock were over. Malkmus’s first solo album was greeted with not a little suspicion, especially given the quasi-ironic album cover, complete with a golden close-up of the man himself. What would happen to Pavement's spontaneity, its inventiveness, the loose-cannon antics of Bob Nastonovich? How could Malkmus’s music ever be the same, and more importantly, how could it be good? This lack of faith in Malkmus missed one crucial quality of Pavement: that its music, however shaped by five very different personalities, mostly sprung from the mind of one restlessly inventive songwriter. And so, despite his fans' misgivings, Malkmus’s first solo album was mostly a gem, a brave step forward that managed to preserve the dada genius of Pavement while venturing into miles of new territory. Much was lost, and nothing would ever replace Nastonovich's cowbell, but something vital was regained.

The new songs were more "straight" than Pavement's, sounding alarmingly conventional on first listen. Malkmus being Malkmus, however, games were still being played, and with the new material, there was still subtext at work, a playful tweaking of whatever pop idiom he'd decided to inhabit. Malkmus has always used a genre like a borrowed suit or a Halloween mask, using its particular qualities and tropes for his own devices while simultaneously subverting the music's core principles. Often, a song would begin with a lush melody and a romantic, wistful couplet ("Maybe / Someone's gonna save me") only to be followed by total nonsense ("My heart is made of gravy…"). The result is that much of Pavement's music felt genuine but was actually fake, or vice versa. Critics often mistook this for callousness or irony on Malkmus’s part, a refusal to write "real" songs. As time goes by, however, Pavement sounds better and better precisely because of these qualities; the distance in their music allows a much more genuine, complex emotion to leak out between the cracks in Malkmus’s meticulous surfaces.

On Stephen Malkmus, Malkmus ditched this dialectical approach for a disarmingly straightforward style of songwriting, rooted in the more traditional playing of his new band, the Jicks. The songs on the record were, as one would expect, much more complex than they initially seemed, but Malkmus was now playing with a much more subtle attack, favoring more poetic, allusive language and even the occasional linear narrative. What really stood out on SM, however, was the music. The Jicks possessed a tightness that Pavement never even attempted, let alone achieved, and Malkmus now had a much greater sense of a band's possibilities. Pavement wasn't as sloppy as its detractors suggested, but its genius did lie in the woozy nature of the playing, in the tension that arose from the feeling that whole thing could fall apart at any moment. With the Jicks, however, Malkmus was able to front a truly cohesive group who were able to produce complex, winding guitar lines and flexible, supple rhythms to back up his multi-layered wordplay. It was a startling change for Pavement fans, but the songs spoke for themselves, and after a period of adjustment, Stephen Malkmus could sit unashamed along side the likes of Slanted and Crooked Rain.

For Pig Lib, SM's follow-up, the basic formula is much the same, although Malkmus himself has professed the album to be much "weirder" than its predecessor. Pig Lib doesn't disappoint on this count, and it wildly exceeds the expectations generated by Malkmus’s first solo shot. "Water and a Seat" opens the record with a wobbly solo guitar line that eventually segues into buzzing-amp blues-rock, circa 1963. As Malkmus sings "If madness comes / So much the better", several background singers chirp nonsense in falsetto, while Malkmus unleashes a screaming guitar solo, the first of many on the record. At this point, only Malkmus’s distinctive voice allows the listener any connection to Pavement; Pig Lib initially seems to have more in common with Creedence Clearwater Revival or perhaps Bread than anything released in the ’90s. More somber, contained numbers follow, such as "Ramp of Death", which sustains itself on lovely percussion and gentle keyboards as Malkmus deconstructs the intricacies of a romantic relationship.

The heaviness of many of the songs doesn't weigh the album down, due to both the deftness of the Jicks' playing and the consistently engaging quality of Malkmus’s lyrics. And, as the album progresses, there are equal amounts of soft, cuddly pop and cock-rock barnstormers, which evens things out quite nicely. Pig Lib also demonstrates Malkmus’s growing love for narrative and his gift for surreal imagery: the album is full of hard-drinking pandas, ravenous oysters, and something called an "animal midnight". Through repeated listens, the images begin to coalesce, and Pig Lib emerges as an incredibly thoughtful, articulate album, full of questions about death, love, commitment, and trees. His guitar playing is consistently inventive while humbly acknowledging its influences, stretching them beyond recognition into something both familiar and completely strange. Both Television and Black Sabbath show up here, and it's a credit to Malkmus that these bands come through in music that sounds so fresh and inspired.

True greatness, however, lies in the album's final three tracks, which justify the album all on their own. The first is "Craw Song", a narrative about love and its resulting confusions, set to an utterly simple, devastating melody. On one level, it's a throwaway pop song, albeit an incredibly smart and catchy one, but closer inspection reveals a devastatingly unsentimental evaluation of the contradictions and lies that nestle beneath our ideas of romance. Next is "One Percent of One", a totally insane, epic guitar workout, complete with more falsetto vocals (reminiscent of Queen), several codas, a false ending, and a lengthy bridge. It's Malkmus’s "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida", completely self-indulgent, flamboyant and searingly brilliant. The album's closer, "Us", is easily one of Malkmus’s finest songs, perhaps his best post-Pavement. It hums along on a shrugging guitar line and stately drums, with nonsense lyrics about general human goodwill. The song isn't about anything really, but it conjures up such a sense of joy and possibility that it almost seems to glow from within, emanating a warmth rarely achieved in any musical form.

Pig Lib not only demonstrates that there is life after Pavement for Malkmus, it proves that rock can still be weird, literate, funny and affecting, all at once.

By Jason Dungan

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