Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks Mirror Traffic (Matador)
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks' fifth album, Mirror Traffic, was recorded in early 2010, right after the group concluded a lengthy world tour and right before Malkmus went on the road with his other band. Yet you don't hear relief for being back home or anxiety (dread?) about playing "Grounded" for the first time in over a decade; you just hear a really good, straightforward pop album.
In a recent interview, Malkmus described Mirror Traffic (a title settled on after receiving approval from David Berman) as having three types of tracks: "There's upbeat songs, some angular songs, and there's kind of slower mellow soul inflections." For a man known as much for his obtuseness as anything else, it's a spot-on description, and the "upbeat" songs, which also happen to be the most obtuse, provide Mirror Traffic's brightest moments. "Tune Grief" is a two-minute gallop of rock ‘n' roll energy, album-opener "Tigers" is sung with an endearingly recognizable smirk, and first single "Senator" could have been a "Cut Your Hair"-level hit, if not for the blowjob chorus (which seems to be the point). The charmingly ramshackle "Stick Fingers in Love," featuring echoey vocals, fuzzy electric and squeaky acoustic, is the album's best song.
Malkmus' trademark wit is on display throughout, too, including the following gems, "I saw you streaking in your Birkenstocks/A scary thought in the 2K's" and "Sometimes these words are such bitter friends/Come back and bite you in the rearest of ends." There's a song called "Long, Hard Book," sit-ups are said to be "so bourgeoisie," and the newly fashioned Old Man Malkmus even makes an appearance, complaining, "Too busy putzin' round the Internet/Revel in the disconnect."
The thing that hampered the Jicks' last album, 2008's Real Emotional Trash, was its reliance on unnecessarily drawn out jam-heavy songs, and this despite the fact that Malkmus remains an under-appreciated guitarist. The longest tracks on Mirror Traffic, fragile "Share the Red" and choppy story-song "Gorgeous Georgie," clock in at a reasonable five minutes and never feel gratuitous. It's only when things slow down, "the slower mellow soul infections," that Mirror Traffic drags slightly. "No One Is (As I Are Be)" would have worked if it were sung by Beck, who produced the album, but Malkmus' disinterest in sincerity doesn't gel with the track's confessional lyrics ("I felt right at home inside my woodshed"), while the lazy blues of "Brain Gallop" and instrumental "Jumblegloss" are mere filler. But at 15 tracks, the soft duds are offset by the blasts of jumpy energy from "Forever 28" and "Spazz." Last year, Bob Nastovanich, a member of the other band, claimed Malkmus doesn't write in the "Pavement mindset" anymore. With all due respect to Bob, he's wrong: Mirror Traffic is the Jicks' most Pavement-like album, and not coincidentally, their best.