Whether he likes it or not, Stephen Malkmus is one of the building blocks of indie rock, an essential strand of DNA that manifests itself in certain choices and attitudes towards music that have dominated the agenda since about 1990 or so. And since the messy dissolution of dear, departed Pavement back in 1999, he has more or less done everything he can to distance himself from that role, picking up his guitar, and soloing long into the 21st century, reinventing himself as a kind of Jerry Garcia for the post-Nirvana age.
Which, it might generally be assumed, is a bit if a shame, cos it’s a fair bet that very few people listened to albums like Slanted and Enchanted or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and thought, “Hey, this needs a lot more ‘wig out’ guitar solos, duuuuude.” Nevertheless, that is exactly what Master Malkmus has done for the past thirteen years, holding on to a core fanbase, whilst shedding those fair-weather fans he never wanted in the first place.
2011’s Mirror Traffic was a pleasant return to form, a tightly focused set recorded with Beck, recalling the triumph of his debut solo self-titled album, languid songs with a skewed worldview that wormed their way into the subconscious, whilst providing an an abundance of melodic treats and surprises. But album number six feels like we’re back on autopilot, hazy jams and lazy smart-ass charm substituting for songcraft for invention.
If Wig Out at Jagbags has one saving grace, it’s that most of the songs are quite short, and when that’s the highlight of a record, there’s something amiss. It’s not that there’s anything bad about it per se, because even Malkmus at his absolute laziest is still pretty good, but even the most ardent fan will have difficulty finding a good reason to stick this one on the stereo.
The songs shuffle by in a fairly similar tempo, occasionally wearing the garb of classic rock, with Malkmus adopting a similar guitar tone to Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi. His solos have a little more girth than usual, whilst The Jicks plod on behind him, giving a totally competent but anonymous backing. There are some nice touches, and the addition of a trombone solo during ‘J Smoov’ is a pleasant surprise, but for the most part, we’re on very familiar ground, with tracks like ‘Surreal Teenagers’ and ‘The Janitor Revealed’ offering up the usual blend of indie rock dynamics, and country-ish ambience. Opener ‘Planetary Motion’ sounds a bit like ‘American Woman’ by The Guess Who, whilst ‘The Lariat’ is probably the most pleasingly ‘Malkmus’ thing here.
But what really grates is the smug complacency of the songs, titles like ‘Rumble at the Rainbo’, ‘Chartjunk’, and ‘Cinnamon and Lesbians’ telling you everything you really need to know about them. To all extents an purposes, someone telling you what these songs are like is about as fun as it actually is to listen to them.
So, y’know, this is hardly a terrible record, but I think the time has come for Malkmus to sit down and have a think as to why he’s still doing this, cos if it’s just to pay the bills, then I want out. Steven Rainey