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Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

by Jeremy D. Goodwin on October 6, 2011

Mirror Traffic

At this point it seems fair to say Stephen Malkmus is the most distinctive stylist to emerge from ’90s alt-whatever rock. His oeuvre isn’t colored by an electronic phase (see: the Smashing Pumpkins) or suddenly-serious confessional moment (like Beck). Instead, he’s spent two decades junking up a steady stream of jagged, irregular rock packed with irregular tempos, unexpected changes and inscrutable lyrics. Sometimes it has more poppy moments, sometimes it’s more esoteric, but it’s undoubtedly his—and doggedly consistent.

And though it is not a standout effort, his new LP with backing band the Jicks has at least enough great moments to strengthen the case that, even in the wake of last year’s reunion tour, we’re not particularly desperate for a new Pavement album, because the solo efforts by its central figure are plenty good enough.

Beck produced Mirror Traffic, though his fingertips are only intermittently visible (though more present than the early reviews are acknowledging). The acoustic guitar seems more prominent than it might be otherwise, and the lazy horns and mellow mood of “Long Hard Book” and “No One Is (As I Are Be)” certainly recall Beck in his nü-lounge moments. On the whole, this is one of those records on which Malkmus keeps his sky-gazing ADD more in check than usual.

Its 15 tracks, disposed with in a tidy 50 minutes, display more discipline than those of 2008’s twistily excellent Real Emotional Trash, though it lacks not only the predecessor’s noisy, ambling asides but, for the most part, its cleanly hewn chunks of perfectly tuneful shamble-pop. Malkmus is a master at pleasing with a left-turn musical lurch or a rhyme. The verses of lead single “Senator” charge forward and stop, charge forward and stop, before a disarmingly conventional chorus smoothes over the rough edges. “Gorgeous Georgie” has it all: mellow acoustic guitar paired with a winding electric lead, mysteriously alluring melody, inscrutable lyrics that waver in and out of focus, and a fully committed vocal delivery that somehow feels earnest against all odds.

“Brain Gallop” is one of very few songs here I’d promote to a best-of collection, with an instantly appealing guitar riff and a sing-songy melody across which Malkmus stretches barely enough words to cover it. The lyrics seem to defy his ever-present irony and wordplay to present an earnest declaration from an in-love middle-aged man to his wife. “I have no idea when we crystallized into talking bookends,” he sings. “I know you like it when I come on too slow/There’s not much left inside my tank today/There’s just enough to come and whisk you away.”

Malkmus’ music is famous for growing on you, so perhaps this record just hasn’t unlocked all its secrets yet; still, large chunks just sort of sit there for me. But there’s plenty of broken chord progressions, mattress-spring guitar parts and inscrutable anthems to sift through until the next one. And though this doesn’t clamber to the top of Malkmus’ triumphs, it’s still very good.