Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – Mirror Traffic
Stephen Malkmus will never live up to what he did in the nineties. Of course, he shouldn’t have to. He said enough with the Pavement output that he has nothing left to prove, for me anyway. What’s most amazing about that material is that Pavement was actually not that great of a band. Sure the whole was greater than the sum of the parts and they had a certain chemistry, but the band was not technically that talented. Well, aside from Malk’s songwriting. Eventually, his overall musicianship surpassed those of his band mates, the band was unceremoniously dumped, and the Jicks were born.
The Jicks have been for the most part hired guns. Granted, they’re hired to help write and record and really be a part of the band, but they’re often still involved with their own projects. Also, in contrast to the ambiguity that was Pavement’s structure in the early days, there is no doubt from the beginning whose band this is. Still, SM finally has a group of musicians that can match his vision. Long gone are the days of Malk taking over the drum kit to show Westy how his part should be played. The parts of the Jicks make a pretty formidable band of professional musicians who can make whatever is going on in Stephen Malkmus’ brain a reality.
What also has changed is the necessity for Malk to fill holes all on his own. With Pavement (and to some extent early on in the Jicks era), SM would deliver his lyrics with a jazz musician’s impulsive stroke. He would bend and contort his words to fill space and make an otherwise forgettable sequence memorable. One has to assume that he also dumbed down song structures to better match the band’s capabilities. This second point is hard to detect, but after watching Malk’s songcraft development over the last few Jicks albums, it’s hard to make an argument that Pavement was a better band of musicians.
Never had I fully realized how much further ahead Malkmus was from his band mates in Pavement until I saw them reunite last summer. During guitar solos, bridges, and moments of improvisation, Malk was lazily tearing away at his guitar, almost playing around. His playing was effortless and extremely tight. The gap between Stephen Mallmus and Pavement had grown over the decade. I always thought the gap was there, but it was way more apparent last summer.
I don’t mean to pick on Pavement. They are still my favorite band who produced my favorite records and some of the more memorable moments I’ve seen on a live stage. They hold a special place in my heart and will never be replaced. Of course, I sometimes wonder how much of that was Stephen Malkmus and how much was the entire band. I suspect a little bit of both. I also think it worked really well for a decade and went as far as it was meant to go before it ended.
In the meantime, Stephen Malkmus continued to grow past Pavement. His self-titled debut was just the next record. However, he was now writing for people who would be able to play what he wrote. The record is loaded with hits, but it never truly received the attention it deserved commercially. The break from Pavement continued as Malk became more comfortable with his somewhat regular/irregular lineup and produced Pig Lib, an album that nearly sounded identical to an SM & the Jicks live show rather than a studio album consisting of mostly Stephen Malkmus and the jicks (lower-case j).
Face the Truth sounded like the next Pavement album, building off Terror Twilight‘s ominous laziness. However, as suggested above, the band was much more capable in carrying out Malk’s song ideas and the album quickly takes you beyond Pavement. Then, Face the Truth explores Malk’s bluesier side as his guitar heroism grew by leaps and bounds. It’s as if the time he spent playing with capable musicians finally allowed him to just play and explore. With Pavement, he often started the songs and the rest of the band received their cues from him. The Jicks are self-sufficient and don’t need the same amount of direction. This has allowed Malk to just play and even sing it straight.
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks finally felt like a realized entity once Real Emotional Trash hit the market. Pseudo-blues and jazz jams from their live show combined with Malk’s lyrical wit made this a highlight in 2008. Songs meandered. Shit got weird, but it felt like this new band was fully realized and ready for something more.*
All of this comes together in the form of the excellently produced, written, and executed Mirror Traffic.
Loopy “Tigers” opens with a sing-along rock edge that hints at the seventies-esque production that continues. The second track, “No One (Is As I Are Be)”, is your lazy Sunday, AM radio piece of gold soundz that even brings the French horn and piano to the party.
“Senator” is your customary third track that doubles as the album’s single. For my money, this is the most complete, best Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks song ever. Malk’s bizarre lyrical content, topical-ish subject matter, and cool delivery is matched by a rather rocking track that hits epic proportions without trying too hard. If it were not for all that blow job business, this would be the late summer’s college dorm , radio hit.
“Brain Gallop” takes things back down a notch with an easy, breezy tone that brings forward more of that subtle seventies production value. In case you hadn’t heard, Beck Hansen produced this album. Channeling the ghosts of John Lennon and Harry Nilsson and whatever rock/pop rockers he’s been listening to, Beck subtly adds nuance that was missing from previous Jicks records. He doesn’t do much. There’s reverb here. Echoes there. More organ over there. It’s a masterful work, really. It’s as if he was there but wasn’t really there.
Side 2 kicks off with “Jumblegloss” which recalls some spacier, janglier moments in the Pavement discography, but just intro’s the second half of the first disc. This cut-off works well to set the table for “Asking Price”, a Pavement-esqe mid-tempo, quiet track that tempts chaos without every really losing structure. Again, the careful playing of the Jicks backs SM’s signature lyrical delivery without him having to fill the holes with bends and turns.
“Stick Figures In Love” is a fun song a la SM’s debut. Plenty of seventies’ jangle and guitar heroism carries the track. It moves and causes toe-tapping one can’t help. Malk’s voice is almost too quiet, but you can make it out, suggesting a near-perfect mix and setting up the moment Malk hollers and echoes the song’s climax. The writing is almost Shins-like, something I’d rarely suspect from a Malkmus-penned song. Additionally, I love the groove coming through Joanna Bolme’s bass. It moves me.
“Spazz” reminds me a ton of earlier Pavement songs that fused punk, jazz, jangle, and the weird. Its herky-jerky movement is only accentuated by Beck’s expert dial-work and the Jicks’ collective musicianship. “Long Hard Book” is the (almost) country track a la “Heaven Is a Truck” or “Father to a Sister of Thought.” “Share The Red” closes the first disc with a steady ballad, Malk-style and lovely and comes to some parental truths and the rare moment of perceived emotion.
“Tune Grief” is the glam rocker to kick off what is a jam-packed side 3. (There is no side 4, just a bizarre etching. I suspect Malk’s kids were messing around with his records.) Malkmus makes a case for himself to play the lead in the sequel to the Velvet Goldmine that should never happen.
“Forever 28” is this record’s “Jenny and the Ess-Dog” without all the Volvos, toe rings, and discarded guitars. The following track “All Over Gently” moves and grooves as only seventies pseudo-blues rock often tried to do while maintaining something more upbeat and relatively poppy. I could totally imagine Malk doing this song on an early episode of The Muppet Show with Gonzo doing something indescribable to his harem of chickens backstage.
“Fall Away” is as soft and pretty a Stephen Malkmus song you’ll find. Even so, it contains a bit of urgency wanting to break out that never quite arrives. “Gorgeous Georgie” closes things out Mirror Traffic with a shaky bit of finality and even a touch of the storytelling that’s become ever-present in Malk songs, post-Pavement. The song does what a good closer should do and just makes the listener want to hear more. So, you remove the record and return side 1 to the turntable.
As I’ve mentioned before, Beck’s fingerprints are all over this record, but you’ll need Vince Masuka to find them. The mixing is expertly done. The production takes nothing from Stephen Malkmus’ aesthetic. If anything, it supplements it well, even pushing it to some modest heights.
As for the Jicks, they are as professional as tight a band as you’ll find. Other than Malk and the already mentioned Bolme, keyboardist Mike Clark and drummer Janet Weiss (now moved on to Wild Flag, FTW!) round up what is a great, great band. Clark took subtlety classes from Beck and augments what would have been excellent songs anyway. Janet Weiss proves once again that she’s one of the best drummers alive. The woman just knows how to treat her skins.
There have been times I’ve been down on Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks. I just wanted them to be another Pavement, but they are obviously not. And after revisiting Malk’s entire discography and spending a lot of time with Mirror Traffic over the last week, I am really getting to like what Malk’s done since 2k started. Now, he’s equaled the number of Pavement records he recorded and doesn’t show signs of stopping. What also won’t stop is his growth and I can’t wait to see how big he grows.
*Somehow, I forgot to write up Real Emotional Trash. I’m not sure how as the title track runs through my head all the time. Still, hat tip to Justin for pointing out my transgression.