splendid > reviews > 4/14/2003
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Pig Lib

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "Vanessa from Queens"

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When I was young, I once found myself in a darkened bar with a brilliant man. He was half in the bag and clearly never devoted more than 20 percent of his attention to what he was saying (the other 80 percent was dedicated to things like watching to see who was coming in the door, wondering what I looked like naked, calculating whether he could hitch a ride to Boston with some slight acquaintances across the room, etc.), but nevertheless, threw away half a dozen lines that still made me laugh and think weeks later. He was most compelling when he was hardly paying attention, and while I am not saying that Stephen Malkmus is anything like this shiftless, slightly disreputable genius, he is clearly in that same class of people who can toss off smart, interesting, non-consensus ideas without even trying.

Which brings us to Malkmus's amazingly dense, yet totally laid-back second album with the Jicks. Pig Lib is one of those discs that almost seems too easy at first, all cruising melodies and off-the-cuff observations -- yet as you're floating along, going with it, you are continually pulled up short. What does that remind me of, you will ask, as Malkmus threads his way from Jethro Tull-ish feyness to swirling Television guitars on "Witch Mountain Bridge". Where have I heard the scratchy deathray bass of "Dark Wave" and how does the track morph from that to a sadder, more self-knowing Cars? Is "Animal Midnight" supposed to sound like Blur's "Coffee & Tea"? And if so, what does that mean? These are the kinds of questions that will keep you up at night -- and remarkably, the answer is never good enough. Pig Lib refers to everything and quotes nothing.

The one thing that Pig Lib is not is a missing Pavement album. It is full of guitar solos, for one thing, looping over one another with giddy, look-what-I-can-do-with-my-ax abandon. It is happy and playful in a way that little of Pavement's work was, following a twisting path that leads who knows where until we get there. Even in the most unitary, pop-oriented tracks -- "(Do Not Feed the) Oyster", for instance -- there are signs that the song is getting away from us. Listen, for example, to the strikingly dissonant rhythm guitar that backs up its catchy verse, and the sitar-like twang that leads into them. The long instrumental break two minutes in literally breaks the song in half, conjuring up the most abstract of guitar-god intervals, Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive" or some of the less self-indulgent Emerson Lake and Palmer. Similarly, "Vanessa from Queens" feels at first like a skewed love song, all lazy licks and impressionistic verbiage and casual sexuality. Its cocky attitude crests in a two-note boast "I got / The right / To fly" then melts into a liquid curtain of guitar notes. Tracks like "1% of One" and "Us" are reminiscent, at least conceptually, of the way that Marc Bolan's early Tyrannosaurus Rex records started with what seemed like very simple songs, and somehow took wing and flew from there into the weirdest kind of psychedelic magic.

There's a lot of sex in this album, from Vanessa's clamped-down ballerina tights to the sweaty wah-wah of "Sheets" (with the sing-along chorus "It takes all night to get off you"). It's an adult kind of sex, though, where the big question is not whether anyone's getting laid or not -- they are -- but what it will do to their relationships. "Animal Midnight", in particular, approaches the whole question of interpersonal connection with nuance and subtlety. But it's not just the stories that are hot. As with all sexy records, there's an admirable rhythm section involved -- John Moen kicking the shit of out of the off-cadenced drums and Joanna Bolme lending sinew and sway on bass.

Pig Lib is the kind of album you think about even when it's not on, that slowly develops for you and creates synapses and connections that maybe Malkmus never intended. It's comfortable right from the start but means more every time you play it. Don't hate him because he's not Pavement anymore. This is a guy who's just getting started.



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