Former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus has been reductively tagged as a slacker icon over the years, and if he hasn't expended much energy to debunk this in interviews, it's seemed less an expression of indifference than of wry amusement at the general laziness of the music press. However, his post-Pavement career worryingly suggested a kind of sulking defiance had set in, as if years of being called a self-indulgent, smart-assed dilettante had encouraged him to throw up his hands and embrace all the slurs. On his last album, Mirror Traffic, this congealed into an arch morass of aimless guitar wonkery, obnoxious vocal affectations, and depressingly dispassionate songwriting. Even worse, it gave dangerous credence to the most scurrilous accusation once heaped on Pavement: that they weren't the new Velvet Underground, but merely the Grateful Dead in Lacoste polos.
As its über-goofy title suggests, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks' fifth album, Wig Out at Jagbags, is mostly another opportunity for Malkmus to get his '70s-stoner-superstar on. Like the majority of the band's output, more than half of the album is for people who thought “Range Life” was the apogee of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, filled as it is with lazily blitzed psychedelic rock that sounds like Country Joe and the Fish took the brown acid. The guitars sound on loan from the Guess Who on tracks like opener “Planetary Motion,” buzzing harmlessly over Malkmus's silly Dadaist musings, as the rhythm section clomps along as if teaching basic motor skills to a kindergarten class. “Scattergories,” “Cinnamon & Lesbians,” and “J Smoov” continue in this same sluggish, no-stakes manner, improving only slightly by removing the sub-Syd Barrett ambient noodling. With the exception of “Done in by Disco,” a sun-addled homage to early-'80s California skatecore, Wig Out at Jagbags proceeds in the familiar Malkmus style: messy, shambolic arrangements seemingly recorded in a single take, with laconically bemused vocals and random-word-generator poetics.
Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain defined and defied the '90s-indie DIY ethos by making intricate, meticulously crafted songs sound like supernatural accidents. In terms of difficulty, imagine a wobbly colt emerging from its mother and immediately winning the Kentucky Derby, then watching its little sister do the same thing a year later. To bemoan that subsequent children weren't equally miraculous would be a profane kind of madness, but it wouldn't be an incomprehensible reaction either. A miracle repeated starts to look like just a really good magic trick, especially when the component parts are familiar.
This is the problem Malkmus has faced in the second act of his career. The touchstones of his sound remain familiar enough that it isn't entirely unfair to expect the same kind of magic. On songs like “Lariat,” “Houston Hades,” and “Chartjunk,” Wig Out at Jagbags teases the listener with dazzling glimpses of old glories, bristling with the wistful melodic discord, putting the lie to charges of apathy that have occasionally dogged Malkmus's career. The Malkmus found in these songs is the same one heard on past glories like “Here” and “Church on White”: a wounded romantic removing the hairshirt of ironic cool to reveal the same insecurities, neuroses, and fears that we've come to know too well.
Despite a title that suggests it should come with a complimentary hacky sack, Wig Out at Jagbags isn't the jam-band bugaboo that disgruntled Pavement fans feared most, nor is it the return to angular art-rock bliss many hoped for. It's an uneasy détente in the continuing conflict between its creator's best and worst impulses.