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Former Pavement frontman avoids sophomore slump.

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Pig Lib

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

(Matador)

Stephen Malkmus thinks he's so clever. The former Pavement frontman titled his 2001 solo debut eponymously and packaged it with photos of himself looking contemplative in a tropical setting, knowingly echoing the self-indulgence of so many solo debuts both famous (Paul Simon) and forgotten (Roger Daltrey). Stephen Malkmus wasn't a solo debut so much as it was a "solo debut."

But if Malkmus is so smart, he would have realized that the follow-up album is supposed to be the "sophomore slump," when the artist flinches and dilutes the qualities of the debut. It's the typical Act II for so many artists, but if he intends to adhere to the archetype, Malkmus screws up by not screwing up: Pig Lib develops the sound he toyed with on Stephen Malkmus and refines it considerably with sharper songwriting, confident guitarwork, and a more cohesive, organic feel. Pig Lib is perhaps the best he's sounded since Crooked Rain Crooked Rain.

While songs like "(Do Not Feed the) Oyster" and "Craw Song" sound like vintage Malkmus, on other tracks he takes a different tack, pushing the songs further while still managing to keep them rooted in familiar territory. For someone whose pre-solo work is so strongly identified with indie rock, Pig Lib is defiantly, agreeably anti-indie. In fact, Malkmus' two big influences here seem to be Led Zeppelin and granola-inflected jam bands like Widespread Panic. "Witch Mountain Bridge" borrows not Jimmy Page's king-size riffs but Zep's misty mountain imagery; it's Malkmus' D&D epic. "Dark Wave" and "Sheets" hijack '70s glam rock for their catchy choruses, while "Animal Midnight" is as close to emotional sincerity as Malkmus is likely to get.

The album's climax -- not just its high point but the culmination of its rising action -- is "1% of One," a noodly jam-band epic.The story of a blind Dutch mixer, the song tries to locate the instant when music hits the listener, the nanosecond when the synapses fire and the brain recognizes a tonal frequency. Is the fact that the track is mostly nine minutes of guitar solo some sort of cosmic joke or is it a serious contemplation about listener perception? I doubt even the Jicks themselves know.

As a "sophomore slump," Pig Lib fails miserably. It's simply too accomplished, too idiosyncratic -- actually, too much fun -- to adhere to the rock-and-roll narrative Malkmus started with his solo debut. Pig Lib is the sound of a musician shedding the quote marks and becoming a true artist -- again. -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: A-

Burn, Piano Island, Burn

The Blood Brothers

(Artist Direct )

It's as welcome as good weather to see the hardcore genre move from its cookie-cutter agendas (and sound) to the art-damaged, autistic spazz-rock being popularized by the Blood Brothers. And they are popular. This is not flavor-of-the-moment fake hardcore à la A.F.I., nor does it share air with the lowest-common-denominator "positivecore" of aging adolescents Avail. It explodes all over the room yet it can be hummable to the nth degree. Grooves lurch, speed up, then stop for vocal interplay, a piano interlude, or a skeletal hook, yet this record does not beat you over the head with the stylistic masturbation or "eclectic" pseudo-intellectualism of, say, Mr. Bungle.

Jesus Lizard may well have the most poorly aging sound of the '90s, but at least now we can thank the Blood Brothers for updating that sound so successfully. I would call that a small miracle. And we haven't even mentioned the true zinger yet: They pull it off with two full-time vocalists -- a trick that would otherwise clearly spell S-H-I-T. One guy is the melodic screamer, and the other guy sings like a girl. I don't mean that in a disparaging sense. I mean that he literally sings exactly like a woman a woman who can really sing. It works; sounds like it couldn't, but it does. The lyrics are suitably surreal for a vocal-obsessed unit that doesn't appear to be drowning in nonmetaphorical politics. We can only hope that this record trickles down to high school kids and blows some minds. The future will be quite bright if younger prodigies take Burn, Piano Island, Burn up a notch.

-- Andrew Earles

Grade: A-

Monday Night at the

Hug and Pint

Arab Strap

(Matador)

It's been exactly two years since I reviewed an Arab Strap album for this publication. An entire era to some, but to Arab Strap it's just a wrinkle in time. Other than the urge to choose poor album titles, not much is new. A band that once bowled me over is now no more than pleasantly entertaining. Maybe it's all in my wary head, or maybe the answer is in the titles. The Week Never Starts Around Here (1997): commentary on very heavy drinking. Philophobia (1998): the fear of love. Elephant Shoe (1999): mouth it into a mirror. The Red Thread (2001): the mythical connection between those in love. Monday Night at the Hug and Pint (2003): a fictitious pub where hugs are literally a menu item.

For a band that can have an unusually barbaric take on how love, stripped to the vital organs of infidelity, alcoholism (optional), jealousy, fire, pain, and euphoria, can really mess everyone up, they've dulled their edge for this one. Matador vetoed the album's original title (The Cunted Circus), and spiked lyrics pop out at a slower rate. Monday is even formulaic in its mix of folk-disco, rock-disco, and the token two or three dynamic "slowcore" numbers that seem to always appear in the Arab Strap album script. Conner Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes play guitar on two tracks, though reading this sentence (or the liner notes) is the only way to know this tidbit. It adds nothing to the sound. I like this album, I really do. I've listened to it repeatedly and have picked out my favorite handful, but I'm a fan. Those who are not should start with Elephant Shoe, or, if you are well-balanced and happily attached (as a deafening silence echoes back), I encourage you to forego starting at all. --AE

Grade: B-

Listening Log

Monster --Killer Mike (Aquemini/Columbia): Outkast's bad-ass little brother gangster walks through Stankonia. ("All 4 U," "A.D.I.D.A.S.," "Rap Is Dead")

Grade: B+

The End of the Beginning --Murs (Definitive Jux): L.A. MC plays indie-hop Everyman to onetime collaborator Slug and labelmate Mr. Lif's best and brightest. "Straight low-budget" and "underground thuggin' it," but still drops rap's first Harry Potter rhymes for his (mostly white) audience. ("You & I," "Last Night," "18 w/a Bullet [Remix]")

Grade: B+

Atmosphere -- The Quails (Inconvenient): From positive radical message to danceable punk sound to the way their passionate voices intertwine, this San Francisco trio is what Sleater-Kinney might be if they were garage-rock mortals. ("Atmosphere," "Soon the Rest Will Fall," "Memo from the Desk of the Quails," "Shine a Light") n --Chris Herrington

Grade: A-

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