In many ways, Stephen Malkmus has used his backing band, the Jicks, to get the taste of Pavement out of his mouth. Over several releases, the Jicks have honed a complex, carefully constructed sound. Their music is quirky with interesting tempo changes and odd phrasing that contrasts sharply with Pavement's simpler focus.
While Mirror Traffic doesn't fully slide back into Pavement, Malkmus finally seems comfortable enough to let the music be simpler and more relaxed. Perhaps he's grown, but I'm sure that Beck's production influenced this change of heart. With a stronger focus on clear melodic lines and a toned down edginess, Mirror Traffic is the Jick's most accessible album to date. But plenty remains familiar, especially Malkmus' voice: the pauses, the almost autistic phrasing, and occasional falsetto.
Tracks like Spazz remain close to the Jicks' earlier material. It's a busy rocker, with some rhythmic change ups. The driving beat and guitar/vocal coordination cover familiar ground. Then the song breaks into a more outside sounding bridge, building on repetition, before abruptly returning to the main groove.
In contrast, Tune Grief could easily be a Pavement track, although it's got higher energy than Pavement could muster in their final work. Evoking late '70s rock (Cheap Trick, maybe) and a slight punk edge, it's a great indie rock driver: don't think too much, just feel the beat and the attitude. It's nice to hear an upbeat Stephen Malkmus thrashing in the moment.
They're not all hard rocking, though. The Jicks pull in some folky vibe with songs like No One Is (As I Are Be), Share the Red, and the dreamy Fall Away. The stripped down, blues groove on No One Is (As I Are Be) is restrained, but full of classic Malkmus perspective:
Unfortunate that none of us will get away sparedEven horn accents and some pretty piano work just polish the tune rather complicate it. I'm not sure how intentional it was, but the horn lines close out the song with a call and response that echo The Hokey Pokey. Maybe that's what it's all about. This track also shows the heaviest influence of Beck's production.
From the never-ending nightlife that we shared
I cannot even do one sit-up, sit-ups are so Bourgeoisie
I'm busy hanging out and spending your money
What does it mean?
The first single offered from Mirror Traffic is the radio-unfriendly Senator ("I know what the Senator wants, what the Senator wants is a blow job"). It's punchy, start and stop rock. The setup in the verse and chorus are strong and catchy, but the song sacrifices its focus in the middle section. The lyrics switch to a reflection of finding gigs and getting high. I still don't get the connection.
Packed with 15 songs, Mirror Traffic shows plenty of facets of good tunes and different sounds. Overall, the album may be poppier than earlier Jicks releases, but it shows that Stephen Malkmus can relax and not lose his wit or his voice.