Stephen Malkmus is indie rock’s Jack Nicholson: a guy whose insouciant faculty is so great he need only arch a musical eyebrow to entertain. And from his last record fronting cult legends Pavement to his 2001 self-titled solo debut, he’s done little more than that — albeit with enough smart-ass poetry and guitar fireworks to keep the margin dwellers happy.
But it’s amazing what a guy can do when he puts some back into it. With help from the flexibly faceless Jicks, (who also played on ”Stephen Malkmus”), Pig Lib accomplishes what no punk-schooled fan would think possible: It makes prog-rock cool. How? By giving its Poindexter knottiness a sense of humor and a 21st-century attention span. Witness ”(Do Not Feed the) Oyster,” which opens like a cosmic seaside fable, alludes to the Dead’s ”Alligator,” breaks into some fantastically tricked-out guitar passages, returns as something like the reverie of a sullen dude visiting his parents in Florida, and bows with a beer-ad blues finale. Funny, trippy, and wistful, it’s as catchy as Yes’ ”Roundabout,” and a perfect summer hit for radio iPod.
It’s ”Pig Lib”’s high point, but there’s still enough archival channel surfing to rouse both jaded indie kids and dusty vinyl librarians. There’s the hiccupy, power-pop squeal of ”Dark Wave” and the conga-rocking, Shakespearean-beatnik love quadrangle of ”Craw Song.” ”1% of One” is a nine-plus-minute guitar quest with caroling chorus that nods to the ’70s English folk-prog of Gentle Giant, Matching Mole, and Fairport Convention. Ditto ”Witch Mountain Bridge,” a bit of Wiccan nostalgia complete with flying-broom synth that joins famous rune-rock anthems like Fairport’s ”Tam Lin” and Led Zep’s ”Battle of Evermore.”
Sometimes Malkmus’ wit is a mixed blessing. On ”Vanessa From Queens,” sublime tunefulness can’t keep a line like ”Bob Packwood wants to suck your toes” from wilting after a few spins. And his droll tweaks of hippiedom (i.e., ”the brown rice clique,” the album’s title, etc.) are most amusing when you recognize he’s actually a psych-guitar revivalist calling the kettle black. Whether jam fans will embrace his sly disruption of the usual bong-water flow is unclear. But I bet Phish’s Trey Anastasio — a Malkmus fan and fellow prog-rocker — feels a twinge of envy when he puts this on.