Words by Brian Salvatore

Stephen Malkmus is at the point in his career where every record is the “____-est” since “______.”

Let’s take the first track on Mirror Traffic, the catchy “Tigers,” as a prime example of how lazy journalists will categorize this record. The pedal steel will awake cries of “the most country-influenced since Wowee Zowee.” The harmonies on the chorus will signal “the most playful since Face the Truth.” The brevity will lend comparisons to his self-titled 2001 album. The use of the pronoun “we” will be evidence to this being the most band-oriented album since Brighten the Corners. And so on and so on.

Malkmus can’t win; some people just want Pavement 2.0 (or for version 1.0 to make a new album), and therefore everything that isn’t akin to something he made in the ‘90s isn’t worth the effort to track down. However, if he makes Crooked Rain Crooked Rain redux, he is out of ideas and should pack it in. This is the plight of the band leader who broke up the band; just ask Black Francis, Bob Mould, John Lennon and Joe Strummer, to name a few of the dozens.

So, when evaluating records by former-front people, we owe it to them to take each album at face value, at least as much as we can. So, in that sense, how is Mirror Traffic? Well, for starters, it sounds great. Leaving out the quality of the songs temporarily, the recording itself sounds warm and deep; the bass rumbles just enough, the guitars cut through, and Janet Weiss’ drums sound as powerful and majestic as ever. Credit must go to top-musical chameleon Beck Hansen for producing the most Jicks-sounding album the Jicks have ever made. On his own records, Hansen tends to throw the kitchen sink at an idea; here he takes a hands-off approach and makes each song sound as good as it possibly can.

The songs are shorter than on the last few Malkmus albums (see, even I can’t help myself from being referential), but still retain the loose, jammy feel in the solo sections. Sure, there are a few that feel a little too tossed off (“Stick Figures in Love” in particular), but that is part of the fun in any Malkmus project. And the record does sound like genuine fun. Overall, this sounds like the cheeriest record SM has ever put out – the general consensus is that since it was recorded in Los Angeles, some of that SoCal vibe seeped into the album. Whether we would be saying it sounds sunny if it was recorded in St. Paul during the winter remains to be seen. Regardless, there is a certain levity to the songs that gives the record a lot of charm.

Songs like “Forever 28,” “Tune Grief” and “Tigers” really energize the record – they move the album along and make the jammier songs seem like pleasant diversions rather than dragged out song after dragged out song, the way 2008’s Real Emotional Trash felt at points. “All Over Gently” comes in at number 13, the number that usually means a record has too many songs on it. However, the track is such a fun, strangely familiar one that you don’t mind the album overstaying its welcome a little bit.

Much has been made of the fact that this was recorded before last year’s Pavement reunion and held off until now; did the impending reunion impact SM’s songwriting? Was the surge of creativity a preemptive response to the upcoming year of playing songs that are two decades old? Again, it would be easy to read a lyric as “I cannot even do one sit up; sit ups are so bourgeoisie” as a very Pavement-y thing to sing. Pardon the “Gold Soundz” reference, but Malkmus isn’t able to quarantine his past – sure, a lot of these songs are reminiscent of his first 20 years in the music business, but it would be bizarre if they weren’t. Regardless of what these songs evoke, they are a strong batch, immaculately produced and expertly performed. This is also the last Jicks record to feature the aforementioned Weiss, a loss that will be quite hard to recover from, so enjoy every last shuffle and fill. Whether or not this is a love letter to 1994, a rude hand gesture to Spiral Stairs, or just a bunch of songs, it doesn’t matter. Just be happy it exists. It’s my favorite since Pig Lib.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
“Mirror Traffic”
© August 23rd, 2011



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