Music Reviews: The Latest From Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, Peter Gabriel And The Pixies

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Given that it is the first release week of 2014, this week's roster is a little thin. ( If you're still looking for something great to listen to, check out last year's complete year in review!) But we have reviews of the latest album from former Pavement leader, Stephen Malkmus, as well as a tribute to Peter Gabriel in which the artist finds his body of work covered by a wide variety of artists. Lastly we review the latest EP from the resurrected Pixies. Behold, some of the first releases of 2014.

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Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks' "Wig Out At Jagbags" ****1/2

"Wig Out At Jagbags" is Stephen Malkmus' sixth post-Pavement full-length, and he thankfully shows no sign of settling. In fact, as one can tell from the gloriously hilarious title, he is fully content to wallow in his own silliness. One gets the feeling that he is one of those guys who rules any room he's in.

If you loved Pavement, there is plenty to love here, too. Tracks like "The Janitor Revealed," "Shibboleth," J-Smoov" and "Scattegories" are infused with a vintage Pavement-esque left-turn charm. Deciphering the meanings behind Malkmus' lyrics can often be a ridiculously futile exercise. Really, he thrives on a seemingly random, stream-of-consciousness style filled with enough obscure references and in-jokes to befuddle even the savviest of cultural observers. In the wrong hands, this could render the music unlistenable and difficult, but Malkmus has always artfully spun this aspect of his writing into an iconic asset.

The single "Lariat" is full of bright and blissful youthful nostalgia. Malkmus sings, "We grew up listening to music from the best decade ever," as if he's desperately trying to maintain and continue a lasting feeling from the past. There is a serious goal behind his goofy exterior. This album seems purposely reflective in the best way.

In the Jicks, he has found a truly cohesive back-up band eager to handle any curve ball he tosses in their direction. Longtime, veteran mainstays like bassist Joanna Bolme, who engineered and mixed some early Elliott Smith albums, and keyboardist Mike Clark anchor the lineup.

Like the majority of Malkmus' other records either under his own name or with Pavement, "Wig Out At Jagbags" is an awesome example of how to craft quirky rock music that will stand the test of time. While Malkmus has never really crossed over into the pop or mainstream rock realm, he's still one of the defining voices to emerge out of the alt-rock boom of the '90s. He's also a musician's musician. He likes working with his peers, and his work always comes off like a productive but playful exercise.

More than 20 years ago, when Pavement's "Slanted And Enchanted" first appeared, like Beck, Malkmus was probably tagged as one who typified the '90s "slacker" aesthetic due to his ramshackle approach and sarcastic demeanor. He's every bit the same guy he always was, refining his sound and getting closer and closer to perfection.

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Peter Gabriel's "And I'll Scratch Yours" ***

In 2010, Peter Gabriel issued a covers album called, "Scratch My Back" where he interpreted material from a wide variety of artists. "And I'll Scratch Yours" is a response to that record, where the majority of the artists Gabriel covered cover him back.

David Bowie, Neil Young and Radiohead didn't return the favor, but they are substituted here with covers from Joseph Arthur, Feist (with Timber Timbre) and Brian Eno. Like any record of this sort, this collection is woefully uneven, but there are a few cuts that are astoundingly revelatory. Randy Newman's take on "Big Time" in response to Gabriel's version of "I Think It's Going To Rain Today" is as epic as it is hilariously great. Gabriel covered Regina Spektor's "Après Moi" beautifully, and she hands him back a perfect take of "Blood Of Eden." Gabriel covered Paul Simon's "Boy In The Bubble," and Simon hands back a stellar version of "Biko," Gabriel's ode to the slain South African anti-apartheid activist. (Both Gabriel and Simon definitely share a kinship in their huge South African musical influence.) And of course, after Peter Gabriel eloquently recorded Elbow's "Mirrorball," they deliver an equally great version of "Mercy Street."

On the lower end of the scale, there are a few covers that fail. The late Lou Reed mucks up "Solsbury Hill," turning it into a strange art-rock rant, and Bon Iver turns "Come Talk To Me" into banjo-picking, falsetto-heavy elevator music. In response to Gabriel's monumental, tearjerker take on "The Book Of Love," the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt goes bizarro-new-wave to weird effect on his take on "One Of Us."

The rest of the tracks, by Acarde Fire, Joseph Arthur, Feist and Timber Timbre, and David Byrne are in the satisfactory realm. What's amazing is that no one chose to cover "In Your Eyes," "Sledgehammer," "Red Rain," or "Steam." Gabriel's last proper record, "Up," from 2002, isn't represented at all.

The few times this record does strike true gold, though, it pays off in a big way, so it is worth a listen for even passing Gabriel fans. If anything, it shows that this man has quite a strong song-book. I wonder how much longer we will have to wait for him to release a completely new record.

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Pixies' "EP2? ****

Last year it was a shock when Pixies' bassist Kim Deal left the band to give her focus back to the Breeders. It was even more of a shock when just a little while later, the band delivered their first substantial bit of new material in more than 20 years. To replace Deal, they hired the Muffs' Kim Shattuck, only to let her go before the end of 2013. In the meantime, they dropped the song "Bagboy" and a new EP, called simply "EP1."

The songs from "EP2? were reportedly recorded in the same sessions as "EP1," with the band's longtime producer, Gil Norton. "Blue Eyed Hexe" is an upbeat, loud, cowbell-infused, screaming bluesy surf-rock stomper, while "Magdalena" is a creepy lovelorn tune that is somehow simultaneously both spacey and sludgy. "Snakes" is an ominous, winding romp with a giant chorus. All of these songs belong in the classic Pixies mold in one way or another, even if Deal isn't in the lineup anymore.

However, the real star of the set is "Greens and Blues," which has the kind of infectious magic that could make it an excellent cross-over hit. Against all odds, "Greens and Blues" is one of the best songs they've ever recorded, which is truly saying something. It's one of the first truly great songs of 2014.

Yes, like everyone else, I'm disappointed that Deal is no longer in the band, and she is missed, but it might be time to move on. Joey Santiago's blistering guitar freak-outs are still there, as is David Lovering's work on the drums. To those who say this isn't the band you remember, I say settle down. Keep an open mind. It's still quite excellent.

Next Week: The release schedule picks up a little next week with new releases from Bruce Springsteen, Rosanne Cash and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.