Album Review

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks "Mirror Traffic"

James Wickens
Mirror Traffic, the fifth release from Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks,represents the clearest articulation yet of the S.M. aesthetic. The album maintains the wiry looseness of former Jicks-backed offerings even as its songs are condensed to their respective essences—several tracks clock in at less than three minutes. With the help of its producer/style-czar, Beck, Mirror Traffic digs through the past to repurpose musical styles, from psychedelic LA country to first-wave British punk, twisting them into new but familiar shapes.

Beck’s role as producer seems split between tightening up the arrangements and curating the palette of stylistic overlays drawn from the Rock History vault. On “Long Hard Book,” reverb-soaked slide guitar evokes desert midnight, while the chorus’ pedal steel pairs with Joanna Bolme’s spot-on Emmy Lou Harris impersonation to suggest some long-lost Grievous Angel outtake. A fuzzed-out guitar outro pulls the listener back into unmistakably Malkmusian territory. “Tune Grief” is the song the Buzzcocks might’ve recorded if they’d grown up in southern California, a short, punchy track complete with a single-note guitar solo and beach-bright backing vocals. All of Mirror Traffic’s influences have surfaced previously in Malkmus’ work, but here, arguably benefitting from its producers influence,they are employed with a lighter touch.

Malkmus’ lyrics demand cooperation from the listener, and possibly patience, but they do deliver. E.g., the opening lines from “Asking Price”: “It came delivered on a frozen rope/Indecision antidote/The frame is narrow, can’t you see/Paralyzed, no clarity.” The meaning drifts into focus as the song unwinds, but the lead is surely, intentionally buried. Comparisons to Bob Dylandrifted around Malkmus’ contributions to the I’m Not There soundtrack, and most were analytically sound; Mirror Traffic’s lyrics are oblique but affecting, faux-casual but still absolutely (if sometimes indirectly) honest. This aesthetic has been an either/or divider for Malkmus as an artist, in much the same way that Tom Waits’ rusty-exhaust-pipe vocals are polarizing; listeners love the challenge or detest the pretense. Adherents like myself enjoy the narrative gaps in between Malkmus’ lyrical hieroglyphs within which we can choose our own adventures and overlay our own experiences.

The Jicks do a powerful job of playing with and against Malkmus’ fractured pop sensibilities, smoothing out the quirky time and key changes into natural, even inevitable musical moments. Swampy electric piano and chunky bass lines provide solid yet supple support while still maintaining a sliver of garage-rock edge. Drummer Janet Weiss (formerly of Slater-Kinney, presently of Wild Flag) givesa nuanced and dynamic performance (sadly, her last as a Jick), moving seamlessly from gentle Nashville backbeat to indie-rock mania, sometimes within the boundaries of a single tune. Overall, the Jicks retain the very 3-D sound of a great live band performing together in a room.

Taste and economy are what finally sell Mirror Traffic. The cultivated sloppiness of past efforts is demoted from aesthetic foundation to endearing tic. It’s this restraint that allows the songs breath that makes this album Malkmus’ most mature and affecting post-Pavement release to date.