Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks
Mirror Traffic marks a milestone for Stephen Malkmus’s post-Pavement solo conduit, his outfit with the Jicks. A decade in age and five albums strong, excepting 2005’s Face the Truth which was almost fully solo, he and the Jicks have been tooling around with his trademark noodly guitar and lyrical backflipping for as long as the group he’s better known for ever did. So at what point do the two diverge, and we talk about the mature, consistently challenging records of his solo career out from under the shadow of his headier ’90s “slacker-rock” days?
If the tipping point demanding treatment of his solo output as fully independent has arrived, this record is a good place to start. If the Jicks were Pavement, at five albums in Mirror Traffic should be their Terror Twilight, and the metaphor sticks so far as both albums were delivered by high profile producers – Beck Hansen and Nigel Godrich, respectively. But instead of a slick swan song – strange exit music for a ’90s act of legacious influence – at 15 choppy, poppy tracks Mirror Traffic is more the jittery “Rattled by the Rush” than the settled “Major Leagues.” As for Beck’s presence, this effort received the lightest touch of his nascent producing career. In fact, his thumbprint is so slight that its most noticeable quality is restraint. That, and lack of the extended jamminess that found a home in Real Emotional Trash.
Playful as expected, rife with juxtapositions and inversions, casual key changes, deceptively shambling-sounding but more tightly wound than a well-practiced comedy routine, Mirror Traffic is wholly part of the Malkmus pedigree. For proof, look no further than the album’s opening fifth, offering a combination of garage rock-grumbling (“Tigers”), spacey piano-acoustic sprawl (“No One Is (As I Are Be)”) and shuffling, collapsing slams (“Senator”). “Tigers” waits for Malkmus to become “enveloped in your sticker shock” before unleashing Chuck Berry licks and lap steel like someone he recalls catching “streaking in your Birkenstocks.” “Senator” is source of one of the few salient political ideas of this season, and “No One Is (As I Are Be)” starts with a cramped, close-in Lou Reed whisper and unfolds in hi-hat, spacious piano and ’70s horn, giving the track an Air-like breathing space.
His penchant for zuihitsu-style lyrics lead to interesting ends, particularly on the fittingly-titled “Brain Gallop,” on “Asking Price,” where he ties his jumbled, stumbling vocals to the riff and on “Forever 28,” which he introduces in a skipping, keyboard-backed clip, “I can see the mystery of you and me will never quite add up/ No one is your perfect fit, I do not believe in that shit,” later obliterating it in lengthy hair-rock runs on the guitar. “Spazz,” a bite of Wowee Zowee-sized goodness, similarly flits in a lurching strum: “Someone’s giving French kiss lessons/ How else will we learn to love?” In “Tune Grief” he becomes downright illegible, adopting a Johnny Rotten growl as his guitar spirals in a ’60s surf-rock riff.
While the all-pervasive amp buzz of other Malkmus records was reduced by Beck in the studio, there are few other noticeable changes, besides the odd note on the triangle or reverb-washed ’70s outro. In particular, Janet Weiss’ drums punch in with the strength and alacrity that she’s always brought to them, something of particular importance now that she’s left the Jicks to reunite with former Sleater-Kinney bandmate Carrie Brownstein in her band Wild Flag. Weiss has been faithfully backing Malkmus since 2006, and Mirror Traffic is the final record of her time with the band.
“Long Hard Book” as a title begs for a quick misread. The stumbling ends of the track’s countrified verses and the Mutations-era Beck atmospherics lend their weight to Malkmus’s sodden vocals before they ascend and evaporate in lap steel and harmony. Bass twirls and percussion skips on the fuzzy, fizzy “Stick Figures in Love,” channeling as a Guided by Voices and Destroyer mash-up, existing in the cloudy overlap between glam and lo-fi. “Jumblegloss” is a rarity in the Malkmus universe – an instrumental – awash in faded guitar chords, jumbled samples and staccato drums. Both it and “All Over Gently” reach deep into jazz, and the latter hits the Golden Oldies dial occasionally as well. By the clumsy (clumsy sounding) strum of “Gorgeous Georgie,” the dissonance and summary finish, it’s clear the path that led him from the noir-ish Americana of Stephen Malkmus’ “Black Book” to here as a solo artist has wound no less than the path from Slanted & Enchanted’s rugged “Summer Babe” to Terror Twilight’s bizarre “Carrot Rope” with Pavement. (All right, perhaps a little less.) But like he says in the opening track of Mirror Traffic, “Change is all we need to improve.”