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Meet the Jicks

 

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks: Pig Lib

Matador, 2003

Rating: 4.5

 

 

Posted: March 16, 2003

By Laurence Station

Back in 2001 Matador Records -- Pavement's primary label during the '90s -- was so incredibly self-conscious about releasing Stephen Malkmus' debut album with his new band, the Jicks, that the label went so far as to do something Malkmus had never done as a member of Pavement: Show his face on a record cover. Early Pavement albums didn't even bother to list the actual names of band members, which was part of the group's mystique, the thing that gave them all-important "indie cred." Malkmus, of course, despite doing his best to stay out of the limelight, was crowned the Clown Prince of Indie Rock, Master of the Non Sequitur, Lord Regent of the Elliptical Lyric. Matador, showing savvy business sense, understood all too well that an album by a band called the Jicks, based out of Portland, Oregon, would probably move far fewer units than "The Solo Debut by Former Pavement Frontman!" So there was the singer's Hawaiian-tanned, Couldn't-Care-Less visage. And, short of the opening track, Stephen Malkmus was indeed a solo album. The Jicks were more backing band than core members. The songs were friendly, pop-oriented numbers, with literate, goofy and clever Malkmusian wordplay. It was an enjoyable record, if a less than cohesive one.

So with Pig Lib, the Jicks serve up their first official release -- and it rocks. This is an unapologetically indulgent guitar-rock affair. From Pavement-era songs "Fillmore Jive" to "Cream Of Gold," Malkmus has always evinced a soft spot for the shameless guitar solos and muscular rhythm sections that predominated hard rock during the '70s, and here, with the Jicks, whatever pent-up desires he's had to make a full album of such songs get released. Whereas on Stephen Malkmus, the focus was on the principal's trademark elusive lyricism, Pig Lib is all about the instrumentation, concentrating on the tight interplay between band members (Malkmus on guitar, bassist Joanna Bolme, guitarist/keyboardist Mike Clark and drummer John Moen).

All of which makes for a far more sonically cohesive and satisfying work than the last Malkmus effort. A trio of songs best illustrates the disc's band-over-solo-artist aspect: "(Do Not Feed The) Oyster" sports a proto-prog rock feel, like some lost artifact of the psychedelic late '60s, displaying a rising intensity, shameless guitar histrionics and a potent backbeat; the synth-heavy "Animal Midnight" shows off a deft, extended jam taken to its logical conclusion on the penultimate nine-minute epic "1% of One;" and "Witch Mountain Bridge," (who knew Malkmus was such a fan of those Kim Richards-Ike Eisenmann Disney adventure films from the mid-to-late '70s?) which builds on the prog-leanings that inform the entire album to serve up dense layers of sound and fantastical lyrics smartly grounded in today's political climate ("Now it's all so straight and narrow/ And the skeptics rule the nation"). There's a refreshing lack of restraint evident throughout, a sense that the band as a whole is comfortable with its identity, no longer playing behind their better known leader but standing confidently beside him.

Not that their leader's uniquely skewed perspective and distinctive personality has been absorbed completely within the new band collective: "Vanessa From Queens" (a song that can best be described as Ray Davies casting a ray of sunshine on the characters populating Lou Reed's Transformer) works Gresham's Law ("bad money drives out good") into the lyrics, and the funky "Sheets" contains the cheeky double entendre "It takes all night to get off you." The biggest letdown here is the dispensable "Craw Song," a gender-hopping tale of dissatisfied lovers that contains such credulity-straining lines as "He cooked her a dinner/ And boy, was it a winner." Hardly a deal-breaker, but it certainly would have been nice to ship this song over to the last album and stick, say, "Black Book" in its place.

Architecture, a subject that crops up in Malkmus' lyrics almost as frequently as boxcars do in Michael Stipe's, gets the royal treatment on Pig Lib. The album is all about sonic architecture, from blueprint to foundation to gargantuan final creation: A towering edifice to the shameless hard rock, air-guitar geek in all of us. It doesn't contain any of the immediately pop-friendly tunes of Stephen Malkmus, but taken as a whole, it's an outstanding debut by the Jicks. Hopefully, we'll be hearing more from this band in the future.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
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 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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