I was thoroughly perplexed when I read several critical reviews fawning over Stephen Malkmus’s debut self-titled album released in 2001. Some favorable reviews include editorials by allmusic; Pitchfork, which almost gets it right, though quotes like “Stephen Malkmus is a more coherent album than any one Pavement release” detract enormously from its credibility; and Delusions of Adequacy, which observes “Quite frankly, the singing and instrumentation are so good on this album I’d almost be willing to call him a singer/songwriter.” Sure, there were some interesting tracks on the album like the rocking “Discretion Groove” or the ephemeral freneticism of “Troubbble”. Considered as a unit, however, Malkmus’s first solo effort fell disappointingly short of the heights to which reviews like these had elevated it.
Thank goodness for second chances. Malkmus’s second album, entitled Pig Lib, makes up all of the ground that was lost as a result of his disjointed and bland first release. The rumor has it that Matador Records, despite tempered objections from the former Pavement frontman, persuaded Malkmus to drop “the Jicks” from the band name and go by his name alone on the self-titled debut. Not so on the new release, and the music itself manifests this change. Malkmus is once again a part of a band (including John Moen on Drums, Mike Clark on keys and some guitar, and Joanna Bolme on bass) that complements his creativity. It is true that Pig Lib, like Malkmus’s self-titled predecessor, fails to match the cohesiveness of any Pavement album. But this is largely forgiveable given that Malkmus and his new crew have offered up an album-and-a-half (the first printing is accompanied by a 5-song bonus EP) of some pretty damn catchy rock.
A handful of the Pig Lib tracks recall latter-day Pavement. After all, Stephen Malkmus’s musicianship is distinct and his artistic stamp on his music is unequivocal. Songs like the of-fki-l-ter “Water and a Seat” and “Vanessa from Queens” could easily be outtakes from 1997′s Brighten the Corners, while “Craw Song” harkens back to the days of Crooked Rain, the keyboards notwithstanding. I’ve grown to expect songs like these on each of Malkmus’s releases — such songs have been, and arguably still do, represent Malkmus’s impression on music.
But what’s so impressive about an artistic force like Malkmus is that his oeuvre is constantly in flux. One aspect of Pig Lib in particular strikes me as entirely novel compared to Pavement’s work. While only one song on the debut album and no more than two songs on any Pavement album exceeds 4 1/2 minutes, there are four tracks on the 11-song Pig Lib LP (not counting the bonus EP) that break the “long song” barrier. SM and the Jicks have fashioned complex songs with depth and a renewed emphasis on the rock in “indie rock”. When asked in a recent interview whether he would consider his most recent work to be “prog rock”, Malkmus responded that his latest work is more “hard-rockin’ prog, like The Groundhogs or maybe the first Jethro Tull album. [Or] Mellow Candle.”
Well, there’s no sight of “Aqualung” on this disc. Though it does not fully transcend the loose confines of the indie rock genre, Pig Lib does succeed in forging a new direction — if not for the rock genre, then at least for the band and Malkmus’s extraordinary career. While Malkmus shied away on his first album from opportunities to display his guitar prowess, he finally unleashes on Pig Lib‘s lengthier tracks. Songs like the mind-blowing 9-minute “1% of One”, in which Malkmus displays some Verlaine-like guitar skills, the classic/prog rock “Witch Mountain Bridge”, and the stunning “(Do Not Feed the) Oysters” help Malkmus distance his work with the Jicks from Pavement’s slacker rock.
To be sure, the breadth of styles on Pig Lib is a clear indication that Malkmus and the band are still searching for their unique style. A few songs experiment with keyboards, including “Ramp of Death” and the Boy’s-Don’t-Cry feel of the aptly named “Dark Wave”, among others. Two of the best tracks on the album — the last song, “Us” and the first track on the EP “Dynamic Calories” (in which, after Malkmus sings “it’s 1983″, proceeds to play the guitar line from New Order’s 1983 hit “Age of Consent“) — cannot really be classified as representative of Malkmus’s other work. These two songs strike a harmonic balance between old-school catchiness and wit of Malkmus’s Pavement work and the new prog-rock and keyboard adventures of the Jicks and could signal great things for the future.
On the whole, the sophomore effort from SM and the Jicks is a powerful piece of music that is sure to please. It might take longtime Pavement fans several listens before they can properly appreciate it. Such patience is surely rewarding.