Wooden Wand's James Toth wrote a piece recently for NPR decrying the lyrics in a lot of today's popular rock songs. Toth — a frequent contributor to websites Stereogum and Aquarium Drunkard — aimed his wrath at critics, too, for giving a pass to the slapdash stanzas and crap couplets that Haim, Best Coast and the Black Keys get away with (email Toth; it's his list).
This almost naturally segues to Stephen Malkmus. Pavement's songs were stuffed to the treble clefs with clever wordplay and culture references that winked at, while working hand-in-hand with, the band's too-slacker-to-care aesthetic. Malkmus' pen remains poison with the Jicks, but his song output since Pavement has been spottier — a fact the latest record reinforces.
On 2011's Mirror Traffic, arguably the Jicks' best, producer Beck concentrated on the songwriter's strength. They emerged with a Malkmus record jam-packed with catchy songs and replete with the syllable-bending snark and wit the songwriter excels at.
For Jagbags, ex-Pavement soundman Remko Schouten was brought in to produce, but the record steers away some from Beck's blueprint and winds up, at least in a handful of unfortunate places, emphasizing Malkmus' post-Pavement weaknesses. "Planetary Motion," "The Janitor Revealed" and disc-closer "Surreal Teenagers" have the proggy direction changes and jammy flavors of 2008's overlong Real Emotional Trash, and the music and lyrics are neither particularly memorable nor acting in concert.
Elsewhere, though, the "Shady Lane"-like "Houston Hades" and up-tempo "Lariat" show off Malkmus' underrated pop-with-a-dash-of-twang hooks and storytelling chops. The fuzzy blast of "Shibboleth" reveals the band's Pixies' debt, while "Rumble at the Rainbo" casts familiar aspersions at the orthodoxy of punk rockers. The slow-burn "Scattegories" somehow gets Condoleezza Rice and Mott the Hoople into the same stanza, while "J Smoov" and the industry-lambasting "Chartjunk" introduce Memphis horns to Malkmus' mix, mostly to good effect.
Still, Jagbags' songwriting bag is a notch below the best solo Malkmus, which brings us back to Toth — because great lyrics still do better in a great tune.