Among Generation X’s role models of about 20 years ago, one archetype reigned supreme, or if not supreme then horizontally on the sofa with a TV remote and bong. I refer to the slacker, that idle American flâneur of the MTV age, a refusenik whose response to the soul-crushing anomie of the nine-to-five life was to spin the latest Pavement album and instigate a rambling discussion about whether the violence in Reservoir Dogs was funny or lame.
Pavement were the perfect slacker band. Emerging from the comfortable alienation of 1980s Californian suburbia, the foursome played twisty alt-rock that found ingenious ways of avoiding getting to the point. They split up in 1999, since when (bar a reunion tour in 2010) their leader Stephen Malkmus has devoted his energies to his current band, the Jicks.
He and the Jicks were in London last week promoting – or “promoting” to give the distasteful notion a slacker’s air quotes – their sixth album, Wig Out at Jagbags. The tall, patrician Malkmus stood stage-right singing opaque lyrics with wonderful languor and playing terrific guitar solos, dispatching the showy, twiddly peacockery with exactly the right mix of irony and warmth. Only one Pavement song was played (“Harness Your Hopes”, with the pointed line “Show me a word that rhymes with ‘pavement’”) in a set dominated by new tracks.
“J Smoov”, soulful and oddly touching despite my having no idea what Malkmus was on about, was balanced by two solos, one rich and deep, the other shriller and more tongue-in-cheek. “Houston Hades” opened with pirouetting classic-rock riffs that suddenly suffered a nervous breakdown, then began again with a delightfully relaxed chug that was in no hurry to get anywhere. “It sounds so impressive from a distance,” Malkmus sang, “take it up a notch or two-o-o-o!”
It’s the slacker’s trick, to be creative and quick-witted while not being seen to make an effort. At 47, Malkmus still pulls it off. Camouflaged by a seeming air of amateurism, he and his bandmates – Joanna Bolme on bass, Jake Morris on drums, Mike Clark on keyboards and guitar – negotiated the songs’ twists and turns with tightly drilled focus. And when an attempt to debut an unreleased song in the encore went wrong, leading them to strike up an old favourite instead, “Jenny & the Ess-Dog”, the glitch seemed natural, a repudiation of the polished efficiency of the usual gig-going experience.