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Posted on August 23rd, 2011 (1:30 pm) by Bradley Hartsell

Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks' output has been a mixed bag, to say the least. I personally loved Stephen Malkmus, finding it a worthy spin-off to the idiosyncratic rock and roll of Pavement's final album, Terror Twilight. From there, to Malkmus' credit (essentially this is Malkmus' solo project with a backing band), he experimented, not settling into mindless rock toiling. Pig Lib experimented with more synth sounds than he had previously ever used, though critics listened and moved on. After 2008's Real Emotional Trash, a sprawling guitar hero album with middling results, Mirror Traffic feels like the band's attempt to return to the graces of pop music. As we've come to expect, the final product is full of up and downs, struggling to balance Malkmus' idiosyncrasies with equally compelling song-craft.

To chart the current incarnation of Malkmus as a Jick, the aesthetic is classic guitar rock with branches dipping into alt-country and faux-punk every now and then. His vocal style, haphazardly sung, rhythmic and oddly melodic is stuff he's being doing for twenty years. Lyrically, he's still cryptic and elusive, evoking surrealism or wry humor. Without perhaps the punk enthusiasm of his younger days, Malkmus is still doing Malkmus. It's the instrumentation that's changing the quality of his music. He's come along way as a guitar player, which might disconcert Malkmus (but probably not--he's famously flippant) to know his most beloved guitar work was his messy, noisy past, but he's certainly taken to indulging his realization of guitar virtuosity. Here, he uses a fluid array of guitar riffs to construct his songs. The bass and drums are solidly played, but they play too complementary to the guitar, as they languish away in the background for the duration of the album.

Most of the songs drag, sometimes saved only by a sharp production trick. Those tricks, by the way, are turned by Beck, which may or may not mean anything to you, but he does have a couple of nice moments behind the board. "Share the Red" is standard Jick material--paced guitar rock with the slightest hint of blues. The melody is solid, but the song doesn't really establish any sort of texture or dynamic worthy of repeated listens. But then the coda is a wonderful, too short, lo-fi piano riff of the song's primary melody. "Tune Grief" acts as if it wants to be the noisy punk of No Age, but the chords are too conventionally classic; it's a decent song, but lacks any challenging presentation, thus Malkmus' voice is behind the scuzz of the music for no other than just because. "Spazz" similarly aspires to be as the title suggest, a spazzy punk song, but the conviction in both Malkmus and the band fall short. "Long Hard Book" is the band's obligatory dip into alt-country, which fails to do anything interesting.

There are ups, of course. Lead single "Senator," finds an enthusiastic Malkmus singing with his tongue firmly in cheek about senators and their knack for soliciting blowjobs. The music lurches, then leaps, intermittently, which isn't exactly "Teen Age Riot" in complexity, but Malkmus sells this song in only the way he could. "Jumblegloss" is a flanger-laden sixty-three second instrumental, which is rife with texture and blissful flourishes amongst a melancholy rhythm. It's a terrific moment on the album, all too fleeting. "Asking Price" and "Stick Figures in Love" deliver a great one-two punch of pop songs. In "Asking Price," Malkmus and the music remain understated, where the bright arpeggios fit well next to SM's melody. "Stick Figures" is pretty easily the best song here, with its upbeat tempo and buzzy guitar melody, and Malkmus nailing each vocal hook effortlessly. The bulk of the song itself qualifies it as the best tune on the album, but the de facto bridge sees Malkmus throw on a chorus effect to his vocals and sing an elevated version of the catchy melody. Subtle trick, but it adds a layer to the song most of these the album doesn't care to possess.

Overall, the lulling moments feel heavy on Mirror Traffic, making its fifty-minute running time (not a brisk pace in its own right) feel even longer. The music, as has been the bulk of the Jicks' existence, is too content playing conventional rock and roll, while relying too heavily on Malkmus to bring out the character. If Malkmus were a more classic frontman, vocally and lyrically, this band wouldn't be worth a second of your time. Generally, however, Malkmus is usually an interesting listen nowadays. But his and the Jicks' ambitiousness when it comes to musical flourishes is too whimsical (the inspired musicianship on "Jumblegloss," the coda on "Share the Red," or the bridge in "Stick Figures in Love"). Malkmus' nonchalant melodies are (and have always been) at their best when accompanied with music equally as distinct and/or weird. As is most of his pseudo-solo career, Mirror Traffic is too safe and unassuming, the music lulling into ordinary places, when it should be waxing Malkmus' idiosyncratic shine.

Track List
1. Tigers
2. No One (Is As Are Be)
3. Senator
4. Brain Group
5. Jumblegloss
6. Asking Price
7. Stick Figures in Love
8. Spazz
9. Long Hard Book
10. Share the Red
11. Tune Grief
12. Forever 28
13. All Over Gently
14. Fall Away
15. Gorgeous Georgie

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Our Rating

63 / 100
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