Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – “Wig Out at Jagbags”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Lariat” “Surreal Teenagers”

At 47, Stephen Malkmus is very much an adult. He has had nothing to prove for many years, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still play music. His last few releases have served little purpose other than establishing Malkmus as the reluctant adult he is. And that’s where “Wig Out at Jagbags” stands – it’s youthful, but definitely adult. Malkmus seems like a ‘cool dad’ that will take his kids to shows and steal the neighbors wifi. His most well-known project, Pavement, served as an antidote to to those turned off by Nirvana and Sonic Youth in the early 90′s – deceivingly catchier, while still grungy and ear-aching. But now, Malkmus is comfortable making fun and diverse alternative that’s never great, but is always an easy listen.

“Wig Out of Jigbags” has a little of everything, like a less stoned Kurt Vile. “Lariat” has keyboards. “Houston Hades” heavily features a trombone. “Rumble at the Rainbo” is a punk blast and “Surreal Teenagers” has volume shifts akin to the Pavement years. The album feels like a mission statement – Malkmus is committed to having fun in the studio. The music doesn’t have much to it, and it doesn’t have to. These are songs Malkmus wants to record, and damn if he isn’t going to.

Lyrically, too, the album reflects Malkmus’s life. Some songs, specifically “Cinnamon and Lesbians,” are steeped in poetry, but some are simply referential. “Lariat” frequently mentions listening to music from the greatest decade, without ever saying what it is, and namedrops Tennyson and the Grateful Dead in the same line. The album has plenty of songs about age – reminiscent odes to growing up, and songs about accepting it when it happens. It’s a playful record, one that accepts adulthood with the stipulation of continuing to look at life through the eyes of an inspired teen. Malkmus is only aging physically, and it’s evident in his consistent releases. “Wig Out at Jagbags” won’t gain many new fans, but the payoff is Malkmus knowing his audience.

If you like this, try: Lee Ranaldo & the Dust’s “Last Night on Earth” – Another fun and eclectic album recorded by an alt god stripped of his band.

Lee Ranaldo and the Dust – “Last Night on Earth”

(Photo Credit: whenyoumotoraway)

Grade: C

Key Tracks: “Lecce, Leaving” “Blackt Out”

I’ve written already about the sad and sudden break-up of one of my favorite bands, Sonic Youth. One thing that isn’t surprising about the break-up is that the members have stayed prevalent in music, all approaching different projects with their own freedom. What is surprising, though, is that Lee Ranaldo was the quickest to release anything. Thurston Moore’s new band Chelsea Light Moving channels a more energetic Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon’s new duo Body/Head lets Gordon dig much deeper into the experimental drones she pushed for before. (Both debuts were near-perfect.) But Lee Ranaldo – Sonic Youths’ “third voice” released a solo album last fall, before either Moore or Gordon had music out. “Between the Times and the Tides” was a largely successful output, predictably combining typical structure with more noisy influences. He’s already got a second album out, with a new backing band.

And with this new, full, backing band (that includes Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley), Ranaldo sticks to more traditional rock structures, at times even resembling a Doobie Brothers type folk-rock. There is less experimentation, but it is definitely intentional. Ranaldo has always been less focused on a specific idea than his Youth bandmates, which can result in albums that vary wildly in both content and quality. “Last Night on Earth” is faulty – his combinations of influences feel a little more awkward and inconsistent.

“Lecce, Leaving,” the opening song, is one of the times where two contrasting ideas really work. It starts as a typical folkish-rock song, but has a long period of hyper-energy guitar build-up, calling back to early 90’s Youth. But otherwise, occasional noise influences and psychedelic bridges don’t really fit into the conventional structures of the song. “The Rising Tide” has a moderately short bit of psychedelia in its middle that fits well, but the multi-minute bookends that surround it (the song is 9+ minutes) make it seem too short. Luckily, the final song, “Blackt Out” (at 12 minutes) seems to completely regain Ranaldo’s experimentation, making a noisy and winding song that’s equal parts fun and fitting for the album’s end.

The main criticism of the album should probably fall on its length. The album is over and hour, at nine songs averaging around 7 minutes. Nearly every song feels a little too long, and when not every idea works, then the album should’ve been slimmed down a little. It’s a long listen, and one that isn’t always engaging.

Ranaldo himself still sounds good. His half-singing fits in the album and he always sounds gleefully comfortable to be fronting his own project. The album is lacking some of his insane guitar, but to hear Ranaldo at the forefront is enough of a pleasure. “Last Night on Earth” isn’t a great album – it suffers from it’s own length, and a full band going with Ranaldo’s noise-folk ideas sounds often sounds unnatural – but it is a decent listen. Devoted fans of the noise side of Sonic Youth might not find much to like, but their not the target audience. Ranaldo, as he always does, is simply doing what he wants to. And although it isn’t his best release, it’s great enough that he’s still recording and getting the chances to just do what he wants.

-By Andrew McNally