The cover art that graced former Pavement founder Stephen Malkmusís 2001 homonymous solo debut was ominous: seen in close-up, the blandly handsome, mop-topped indie icon looked pensive and sensitive. Was the former leader of one of the most important bands of the í90s poised to become the 21st centuryís answer to Jackson Browne? Narcissism is one thing, but when frontmen from beloved bands go it alone, the effect can resemble that scene in Being John Malkovich when the title character enters his own portal and finds nothing but multiplying reflections of himself.
Not to worry: that sensitive expression concealed a smirk, and Stephen Malkmus (Matador) was a fine if oddly restrained collection of angular, whimsical pop songs that included the great Pavementy single " Jenny & the Ess-Dog. " The disc also confirmed what some Pavement fans had suspected: Malkmusís pop hooks had often been lost in the snap and crackle of the bandís joyous cacophony. Yet to claim heíd outgrown his old bandmates was beside the point: Malkmus was always miles ahead of Pavement, the bored smart-ass stuck in a class with the slow kids.
Which is to take nothing away from Pavementís brilliance. As a critical darlingís critical darling, the band kept nearly every lo-fi promise they made on their stunning debut, 1992ís Slanted and Enchanted (Matador), before breaking up in 1999. For aging fans of left-of-the-dial í80s " college " rock, or anyone who felt out of synch with grungeís unironic appropriation of arena bombast, Pavement represented a sane alternative to wearing out the grooves on oneís old R.E.M. and Sonic Youth LPs. They were a college-radio dream come true. Clever and evocative lyrics that skirted the edges of surrealism and obscurity. Crazy rhythms and sloppy live shows. Pop hooks bent in odd directions, baited with vocal harmonies, barbed with guitar noise. An elusive wise-ass attitude that stopped short of precious. Half-hearted musical ambition, and even a real radio hit, 1994ís " Cut Your Hair. " Pavement were sweet skewed salvation ó just the thing to revive your spirits after, say, escaping from amid a mob of lighter-waving yahoos at a Soundgarden concert.
There was always something provisional and amateurish about the band, and that was a big part of their charm. For Malkmus ó a formidable guitarist in the tradition of Tom Verlaine ó that shoddiness must have felt more limiting with each successive album, even as the rest of the group became more polished. And with Stephen Malkmus, it seemed he wasnít quite sure what to do with his new freedom. So he tread lightly.
Pig Lib, his second solo album, is a much looser, more confident affair. Thereís a palpable joy in the guitar playing thatís evident in the intricate lines of the opener, " Water and a Seat, " a lopsided tune that evokes both the sinewy arpeggios of Television and the caterwauls of Jeff Buckley. On " (Do Not Feed) The Oyster, " a song that given a few scuff marks might have fit on Pavementís Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador), he bends notes into strange, hypnotic shapes and then lays down some monster-metal riffwank and backward-looped guitar lines. " Sheets " is scorching acid funk that drifts into psychedelia ó a workout for the competent rhythm section of bassist Joanna Bolme and drummer John Moen, who with guitarist/keyboardist Mike Clark constitute Malkmusís back-up band, the Jicks. " Dark Wave " revisits frantic í80s skinny-tie-and-parachute-pants new wave, adding a healthy dose of menace and a catchy chorus worthy of the Cars.
All of the above are agile exercises in quirky prog-pop. But the candied center of Pig Lib lies in its handful of more-straightforward pop songs. Malkmus can work the same beguiling terrain as Velvet Underground disciples Luna and Yo La Tengo, but his melodies take more startling twists, turns, and stutter steps. He channels early Lou Reed on " Animal Midnight. " " Us " and the melancholy " Ramp of Death " balance gorgeous if willfully imperfect vocal harmonies against the irresistible drone of his guitar. " The Craw Song " is a witty vignette captured in two and a half minutes of deft acoustic folk. The standout is " Vanessa from Queens, " a sad and funny character sketch full of light musical and lyric touches; " Well, the avenue is in a panic/Bob Packwood wants to suck your toes, " goes one verse.
Yes, the light amusing touch of Pig Lib befits the thoughtful craftsman more than the slacker god or the guitar-slinging romantic. And itís a given that Malkmusís solo work will never be as resonant or life-changing as Pavement at their best. But Pig Lib is further evidence that even if heís less important now then he was 10 years ago, Steven Malkmus is simply better on his own.