Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Wig Out at Jagbags

Wig Out at Jagbags is the sixth full-length offering from former Pavement maestro Stephen Malkmus…


Wig Out at Jagbags is the sixth full-length offering from former Pavement maestro Stephen Malkmus and his Jicks. The California-born family man was the primary singer and songwriter for the 90s indie rock darlings from advent ‘til their indefinite hiatus in ’99. Pavement never signed for a major label. They were labelled the best band of the 90s by famed hard-ass American critic, Robert Christgau. More importantly, 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain forms part of their repertoire. Immediately after their ‘hiatus’ (which lasted 11 years, until a reunion in 2010), the frontman formed Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. 

It’s not unusual for poets and virtuosos to birth outlets for their varying creative sparks in the wake of former ensembles. Sometimes these outlets will not match the heights reached with former troupes and other times they do. Consider the career paths of former Misfits helmsman and founder of eponymous blues/doom rock juggernauts Danzig, Glenn Danzig, and Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer (formerly of Coachwhips, Pink and Brown, Yikes and The Hospitals). More often than not, it’s a special thing to witness a bona fide creator with the freedom to write, orchestrate and deliver as they will. 

Upon releasing Wig Out at Jagbags, a long way after the notorious handcuffs incident, Malkmus has recorded more albums with the Jicks than he did with Pavement. That said, the scope and purpose of the two bands couldn’t be further apart. The same applies to Malkmus’s ambitions behind the respective projects and subsequent results. The sixth LP offers a finitely quirky brand of 70s rock n’ roll that at no point tries to be from that era. The self-aware Malkmus appears satisfied with not breaking new ground on a large scale and ostensibly refrains from indulging in the artistic decadence and grandeur associated with the guitar music of that decade. The poet in Malkmus understands the value of ‘less’. But by no means is this record subtle, as the conflicting interests of a multi-faceted personality come to the fore.

The eccentric in him ensures no shortage of flair in the shape of flamboyant, multi-instrumental expositions and scatterbrained lyrics. The staccato commencement of the album on ‘Planetary Motion’ sets a playful tone and preps the listener for an otherwise pretty ride that’s partially punctuated with moments of screechy weirdness or noisy repetition. The false start of ‘Houston Hades’ illustrates this: a loud 30 second introduction paves way to a song that goes in the opposite direction. The same applies for the ending of ‘Scattegories’. Oddly enough, in the context of the rest of the album, occurrences like these make sense. Failing this, Malkmus garners the listener’s approval through witty lyricism. Describing his Houston Hades character he quips “It’s no wonder he smashes guitars and turns stages into cool crime scenes”. 

Rooted in the music of a specific era, the nostalgic Malkmus is kept at bay only by his playful sense of humour, which indeed plays a significant role on the record. This is evident in the title, whereby Malkmus seeks to poke fun at ‘jagbags’ The term is Chicago-based slang that can be used as a euphemistic substitute for ‘jerkoff’ or ‘jackass’. It’s supposedly the type of word you’d read in Archie comics – which experienced the height of their popularity around the 70s. The very same period that Malkmus repeatedly describes as “the best decade ever” on ‘Lariat’. However, rather than a non-negotiable averment, ‘Lariat’ is written and performed to provide the feel of a father addressing his children, balancing nostalgia and getting carried away while trying to squeeze in valuable life lessons (“you’re not what you aren’t; you aren’t what you’re not”). Who the jagbags are here is uncertain. Whether it is perceived as a brag regarding his creative freedom while not taking himself too seriously, or put forth with irony as he toys with the listener or even as an instruction to his audience, it feels as if his goal has been achieved.

After multiple listens, the quirks and bells and whistles of the record tend to become slight irritants. The steadier rock n’ roll portions are beautifully crafted and occasionally tarnished by their eclectic gift-wrapping on repeated listens. ‘Rumble at the Rainbo’ starts off with a shouted dedication to his granddad and is overall too obvious and tries a little too hard. It’s a sub 2 minute filler that will harvest a chuckle and a listen or two but will most likely be skipped by patrons upon revisits. A track like ‘Chartjunk’ with its fiery guitar solo conveys its self-evident message with greater finesse and sets the standard against which the former track falls short. Some of the album’s finest moments in the long run are when the listener is permitted to enjoy Malkmus’s impressive instrumental arrangements and compositions sans vocals and flowery lyrics. On ‘Cinnamon and Lesbians’, however, he establishes an excellent cohesion of these two areas.

Being the conflicted brain behind the operation, one imagines that writing this record was the toughest part for Malkmus. The ergonomically packaged, easy-going end product gives the feel that recording was as fun and colourful as the music sounds which is, strangely, a mind-easing notion. Indeed the album’s mileage is far from endless – owed largely to the lifespan of its quirks – but one questions if longevity was even on Malkmus’ list of priorities when recording this album. The point is that Wig Out at Jagbags should not be the only CD in your car because its effectiveness will wear off. But use it wisely, perhaps occasionally to cool off after a moderately stressful day at the office, school or varsity and enjoy it for what it is: a work that is truly comfortable in its own skin and that mocks all the jagbags that aren’t.

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