Nearly half a decade on from Pavement's dissolution, the band's prime movers are making exactly the kinds of music they want to make on their own, for better or worse. With the Jicks, Stephen Malkmus continues to follow his stoned muse, turning out music that's equally fascinating and frustrating. Meanwhile, Scott Kannberg's Preston School of Industry churns out affable, middle-of-the-road indie rock on their debut, All This Sounds Gas, and their follow-up, Monsoon, which, aside from a slightly more consistent track listing and the lack of any songs as immediately catchy as "Falling Away," is virtually interchangeable with their first album. Nearly all lingering remnants of Kannberg's former band's quirkiness have been ironed out, and the shuffling beats and warm, jangly, occasionally noodly guitars on songs like "The Furnace Sun" and "If the Straits of Magellan Should Ever Run Dry" define the album's straight-ahead fusion of sunny California rock and power pop. Even the album's song titles, such as "Walk of a Gurl," allude to the classicism that Kannberg is striving for on Monsoon. As pleasantly familiar as this sound is, it becomes repetitious over the course of the album, and Kannberg's subdued vocals make the songs sink further into the background. However, as far as background music goes, the album is hard to beat; its easygoing, eager-to-please vibe embraces the listener in its hazy warmth.
Not surprisingly, the songs that deviate from this formula even slightly stand out even more than they normally would. "Line It Up" sounds like it wants to be a twisted piece of art pop à la Kannberg's songs on Wowee Zowee, but is rusty from lack of use; the darkly twangy "Escalation Breeds Escalation" recalls Frank Black's later solo work; and "Tone It Down" is a sweetly sparkling, sprawling ballad that ends the album on a high note. But Monsoon's true highlight is "Get Your Crayons Out!" With Wilco behind him, Kannberg sounds more engaged and charismatic, more like a frontman, than he does on any of the album's other tracks. The song's shambling mix of psych rock and spaghetti Western music is not only the most interesting sound on the album, it has a freewheeling sense of fun that is missing from too much of Monsoon (and the rest of Kannberg and Malkmus' solo work, for that matter). It's probably unfair to hold Kannberg's post-Pavement career to the same standards as his work with that seminal band; on its own terms, Monsoon is a nice album for and by indie rockers with a few years on them. Yet the glimmers of vitality lurking around the edges of the album tend to make it all the more frustrating -- just a few more distinctive songs would've gone a long way toward making this a really solid album instead of just an intermittently entertaining one. On his own, Kannberg's music should be less about industry and more about art and excitement.