Ever since either Beavis or Butthead described the band behind the video for “Rattled By the Rush” as lazy, Stephen Malkmus has been dogged/haunted by accusations of lacking effort. His original nineties alt-rock act, Pavement, were called “slacker rock” even before Mike Judge gave his own verdict. Going pseudo-solo in the new century/millennium as (eventually) Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks increased his ambition (or just decreased others limiting his ambition), extending more and more into his jam ways up to 2008’s Real Emotional Trash (QRO review), before bringing back the catch in 2011’s post-Pavement reunion tour (QRO review) Mirror Traffic (QRO review). Yet latest release Wig Out At Jagbags doesn’t have quite the coherence of either a ‘jam SM’ or ‘pop SM’ record to make it the impressive record it could have been.
There are a few simply great songs on Jagbags. The breezy but wry “Lariat” has the killer lyric, “We grew up listening to the music from the best decade ever,” which is the tag line to this album the way, “What the senator wants / Is a blow job” was on Traffic (from “Senator”). Single “Cinnamon and Lesbians” has Malkmus’ catchy, but not saccharine, ways. And “Rumble at the Rainbo” is a hilarious kiss-off to old school punk(s).
Yet too often the jam moments feel like meanders by Malkmus, like he’s too relaxed and enjoying everything to try for more. Noodles like “The Janitor Revealed” and ditties like “Houston Hades” are perfectly nice, but they’re barely remembered on this record, let alone later in his long career. The smooth “J Smoov” is nice as a diversion, but only as a diversion. Other songs accomplish more, such as the more active “Chartjunk” (even if you can practically hear the chorus “Richard Avedon” from the earlier, superior “Gardenia”) or bigger jam “Scattegories” – yet the rock of “Shibboleth” has some not that impressive moments.
“Scattegories” is lifted by another great Malkmus turn of phrase, “Condeleezas Rice” – he can turn a great phrase when he wants to, and while obviously didn’t need to do so throughout Wig Out At Jagbags, the record could have used more of that, more of something to be the great album it could have been. More of Malkmus.