May 30, 2003

Steve gets off the pavement and on the pig at the Metro

Now, I don't claim to have anything more than cursory knowledge of the oft-revered, now dearly-departed band Pavement. I own two of their albums, the ones that bookend the decade of the '90s, as well as their career. From what I know, their debut, Slanted and Enchanted, recently given the 10th anniversary treatment by the folks at Matador, is considered something of a watershed record in literate slacker-rock. However, the band's fifth album and swansong, Terror Twilight, is not nearly as heralded, more of a precursor than a fitting end to a brief but startlingly influential career.

In the few years since Terror Twilight's release and Pavement's subsequent split, their most prolific and noticeable former member has been, naturally, ex-frontman and wry commentator Stephen Malkmus. Upon hearing Malkmus's eponymous solo debut in early 2001, many critics commented that this was the loosest that Malkmus had sounded in many years. Though many also said that Pavement's last album was essentially Malkmus's first solo project, his true solo career, backed by his new band the Jicks, has seen the unhindered Malkmus taking the signature Pavement sound in completely new directions.

This foray further into eclecticism is even more apparent in the songs on Steve and the Jicks's new album Pig Lib, a majority of which were performed during the band's concert last Friday at the Metro. The record, which was released in March, is a little darker and has less of the Beach Boys pop that ran through many of the songs on Stephen Malkmus. On the new LP, the band throws in a little new wave, some Zeppelin mysticism, and sometimes quirky, sometimes balls-out, always lyrically obtuse rock 'n' roll. And it's a hell of a lot of fun in concert.

The show began way past my bedtime, at 11:30, as Chicago's own Azita played a short set of piano-based confessionals. After a brief interim, the band came on to vigorous applause from the packed house. The tall, lanky, perpetually-23-but-actually-37-year-old Malkmus took his place behind the mic, still singing along to the jam that had just been blaring on the PA, Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion." "What a great song to come on to," he mused.

If memory serves me well, the band then launched into "Jo Jo's Jacket," one of several perfect ebullient pop songs from the band's first album. The song is essentially an homage to the great bald-pated actor Yul Brynner, as the album version opens with Brynner philosophizing about the shaving of his head. Although the concert version did not feature any posthumous voice-over, it did feature the infectious chorus consisting entirely of vowel sounds.

This little tune proved to be a great tone-setter, as the evening felt like one big happy gathering of laid-back indie rock fans. No mosh pits here, no sir. Just a lot of head bopping and toe tapping, and plenty of chortling at Malkmus's absurdist yet often poignant lyrics. Even between songs Malkmus waxed eloquently and bizarrely, often mentioning the White Sox, once remarking that they would perhaps play better if they changed their name to the White Stripes. Or maybe vice versa.

For close to two hours the band slid effortlessly between songs from both Malkmus albums, hitting on all but one (by my count) of the songs off Pig Lib. In general, these songs feature more room for guitar solos and extended instrumentals than the ones on Stephen Malkmus, so they expanded even more in concert, with Malkmus showing off his underrated, often excellent guitar-playing. The entire quartet, featuring bassist Joanna Bolme, drummer John Moen, and Mike Clark on keyboards and guitar, make for a tight band, all being veterans of the indie rock circuit and sharers of Malkmus's sense of humor.

Although I never did see Pavement play live, I find it hard to believe that Malkmus could have had more fun with them than he does with the Jicks on stage. Perhaps they were energized by the Chicago date being the penultimate show of their U.S. tour, or perhaps they are just as giddy all the time. Malkmus and Clark are the two biggest clowns; the first song of the encore was a slowed-down version of "Jenny and the Ess-Dog" featuring their spontaneously-choreographed interpretive dance. Other highlights of the finale included an even longer version of the Pig Lib epic "1% of One," as well as Gram Parson's "One Hundred Years from Now," which featured Malkmus on drums and a strong vocal performance from Clark.

Perhaps it is indicative of his full emergence from the Pavement shadows that the only non-Jicks song included in Malkmus's set was the final Parsons song. Although playing a Pavement song might have been considered some sort of copyright infringement, even if it wasn't, I'm not sure if Malkmus would have any interest in playing one anyway. He seems very comfortable in his new role as bandleader, not just frontman or mouthpiece for some indie rock deities.

Malkmus once related being in a band to being handcuffed (this was amidst the band's last few gasps), though one wonders how much Pavement really restrained Malkmus's muse. Nonetheless, he now seems as free and easy as he's ever been, and the feeling ricocheted joyously off each of the Jicks and amongst the Malkmus loyalists last Friday night. Sweet emotion, indeed.