“I care / I care / I really don’t care,” Pavement mastermind Stephen Malkmus sang during fluke near-hit “Cut Your Hair” on 1994’s stunning alt-touchstone of slackerdom Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. And so was born the ambiguous rallying cry of an apathetic generation more than ready to embrace Pavement’s half-ass genius for dense, stream-of-conscience wordplay, inventive deconstructionism and off-kilter lo-fi guitars.

To give a crap or not to give a crap – that’s always assumed to be SM’s question. But hardcore SM junkies (are there any other kind?) take it as a matter of devotion that their beloved ramshackle indie guitar-poet added each and every little wrong note and lyrical non sequitur on purpose.

Everybody always wanted to believe that the puzzles would eventually make sense if you listened obsessively enough, but still fans prayed for a sign – something to let them know Malkmus was giving his songs and lyrics more thought and effort than he often let on.

Enter Pig Lib, a new record from SM that feels nothing if not deliberate and mature. On this latest album, Might King Opaque and his Portland-based group the Jicks (Joanna Bolme on bass, John Moen, drums and fresh recruit Mike Clark on keyboards) emerge a confident, fully-formed unit developing something unique for themselves. Their evolution is especially remarkable considering the huge shambling legend cast by Pavement.

While SM sounded fairly self-assured on his 2001 self-titled album, he still seemed to be holding back, touring in a host of immediately pleasing, but seemingly half-baked tunes. The same goes for the Jicks who sounded loose but tentative on Malkmus’ eponymous last album. Many sought to immediately label the new group as nothing more than hired hands, yet the musical personality displayed here negates that.

Like most of Malkmus’ best work there is an underlying melancholy buried beneath Pig Lib’s songs. Hints of sour break-ups and nervous breakdowns play about the edges of the record. Meanwhile the surprise prog-rock instrumental breakdowns of the bitter “Sheets,” the spacey “Animal Midnight” and the downright scary “Dark Wave” set the tone for the psychedelic epics like the shadowy “Witch Mountain Bridge” and the nine-minute “1% of One.”

The simple but gorgeous beauty of the ironic Cinderella story “Vanessa from Queens” and the soft, understated “Ramp of Ramp” are satisfying achievements, but it is the album’s closer that really lives up to other classic Malkmus moments.

That song, “Us,” seems a genuine moment of earnestness from SM, a brightened update of his longing for CCR-inspired utopianism that runs throughout “Box Elder” and “Range Life,” although here the song bleeds over with hard- won hopefullness, sharply

countering the sardonic and bittersweet tones of this otherwise dark, but engaging album.

Rating: 4 Stars.

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