Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Mirror Traffic

01 Tigers
02 No One Is (As I Are Be)
03 Senator
04 Brain Gallop
05 Jumblegloss
06 Asking Price
07 Stick Figures In Love
08 Spazz
09 Long Hard Book
10 Share The Red
11 Tune Grief
12 Forever 28
13 All Over Gently
14 Fall Away
15 Gorgeous Georgie

No one is your perfect fit / 
I do not believe in that shit," Stephen Malkmus confides over lightly distorted electric guitar on "Forever 28," from the 45-year-old father of two's fifth album since his former band, Pavement, split more than a decade ago. Then, coloring those chords with jazzier notes, he warbles, "Don't you know that every bubble bursts / Kill me." His current band, the Jicks, soon join in with a sunny bounce that recalls Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky."

It's a moment that epitomizes Mirror Traffic, a patient, inviting album that feels like a fresh start from a guy whose recording career spans multiple boom-and-bust cycles, both for indie rock and the economy. Pavement's best-of compilation and globe-trotting reunion tour last year left the perennially underachieving group finally resembling what some critics had been calling them all along: the preeminent band of the '90s. Produced by another of that decade's so-called slackers -- Beck Hansen -- Malkmus and the Jicks' latest responds to all that success, in true Malkmus fashion, not with blatant nostalgia, nor with some pathetic stab at timeliness, but with a thoroughly beguiling roll of the eyes.

Malkmus and the Jicks may reside in Portland, Oregon -- where, per Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein's Portlandia, "the dream of the '90s is alive" -- but unlike, say, Billy Corgan, both Malkmus and Beck have continued to evolve since their Clinton-era commercial peaks. Over the course of his four post-Pavement albums, Malkmus has toyed with electronics (2005's Face the Truth) and explored 1970s gnarled-guitar workouts (2003's Pig Lib, 2008's Real Emotional Trash). And Beck? Since wrapping up his major-label deal a couple of years ago, the 41-year-old Los Angeleno has been in the full bloom of a career revitalization, most recently producing Thurston Moore's superb Demolished Thoughts.

Where Real Emotional Trash began on a quasi-autobiographical note, Mirror Traffic opener "Tigers" leads with a farcical scene worthy of Will Ferrell: 
"I caught you streaking in your Birkenstocks / 
A scary thought / In the 2Ks." And where that last album was Malkmus and the Jicks' most stylistically unified, Mirror Traffic is both more varied and more focused. Malkmus dismisses sit-ups as "so bourgeoisie" over Wes Anderson-ready chamber pop, revels in "putzing 'round the Internet" over spidery guitar and warm keyboards that inexplicably crackle with cellphone distortion, and condemns himself as a mortally doomed "one-trick pony" over pedal-steel-drenched, Updike-referencing alt country.

Millennials who chafe at Generation X's shrugging anti-dominance and Pavement's mocking of arena-rock idols, take note: Malkmus and Co. are not half-assing it here. Pavement, even at their best, never had anything like the Jicks' adroit nonchalance. Captured here mostly over two days in L.A., after the completion of a 2009 world tour, 
the band have the punchy, relaxed assurance of a group of pros who know exactly how many beers they can drink and still hit 
their marks.

If Mirror Traffic has an overriding theme, it's not the coming-of-age goose bumps of new-school '90s acolytes Pains of Being Pure at Heart or Yuck. It's impending death. "I know what everyone wants / What everyone wants is a blowjob," Malkmus howls on stoned romp "Senator." How can he be sure? "You are fading fast / You are fading fast / You are gone." The album's last words are "fall to dust." At least Malkmus prefaces them with a blaze of ragged guitar glory...www.spin.com

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