Under Review: Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks – Mirror Traffic

When art is so strongly derived from a feeling of youth, the artist’s own age can often interfere with that illusion. Think of how many veteran rockers are still sporting big hairstyles or cram themselves into spandex pants night after night. More than ten years after the breakup of Pavement, Stephen Malkmus shows little sign of aging. In fact, if anyone’s to blame for the more hushed moments on Mirror Traffic, Malkmus’ fifth album with The Jicks, it’s his producer, Beck. Unlike the last few Jicks records, which Malkmus himself produced, Beck’s presence too often manages to bend the band’s sound into something distinctly indistinct. Sometime since the release of The Information, Beck turned into an old man, especially on his producing gigs. His main technique seems to be taking musicians who are quite capable of making a ruckus (along with Mirror Traffic, this year found Beck producing Thurston Moore’s arduous Demolished Thoughts LP) and coercing them into toning down. Though strummy, acoustic-based songs are numerous on Mirror Traffic, it’s Malkmus’ celebrated songwriting and the collective technical skill of The Jicks that saves the record from being a snooze.

Mirror Traffic leads strongly with its punchiest song, “Tigers,” in which Malkmus rattles off a serious of terrific-sounding phrases. Lines about getting “enveloped in your sticker shock” and “the and’s, the if’s the but’s and the the’s” all flow into a group chorus that’s nothing short of delightful. Ever the experimenter, Malkmus gives the song a brief, discordant coda where it could’ve just as easily resolved. Those unusual flourishes are hallmarks of Malkmus’ music, and even the stripped-down songs feature coyly engaging arrangements. The ambling “Brain Gallop” and “Long Hard Book” show off a lopsided country influence, while the appropriately titled “Spazz” is a tense, paranoid song with a surprisingly tender message at its heart. That bait-and-switch also appears in “Senator,” which appears to be an indictment of political and corporate carelessness. The song’s refrain, “I know what the senator wants/What the senator wants is a blowjob” might be a bit jarring to prude ears, but it’s a pointed remark on the humanity that lies behind all that greed and corruption. After all, at the song’s end, the lyric turns to “What everyone wants is a blowjob.” In Malkmus’ eyes, none of us are all that different.

A highlight of each Jicks record is the extended instrumental passages. The band’s last album, Real Emotional Trash, was very heavy on exploratory guitar solos, and while they’re not totally gone on Mirror Traffic, they’re noticeably fewer in number. The longest songs on the album clock in at just over five minutes (there are three of them, compared to Real Emotional Trash’s abundant epics), but the solos remain taut, melodic and inventive. Still, shorter songs like “Tune Grief” and “Stick Figures In Love” do the best job in melding Malkmus’ pop sensibilities with Beck’s mellow haze. The two ‘90s indie icons aren’t a complete mismatch, but Beck could learn a thing or two from Malkmus about loosening up.

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~ by E. on August 22, 2011.

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