It’s interesting to see an artist well known for their role in a particular band reach the point in their solo career when they eventually release as many albums independently as with the former group. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks’ latest, Mirror Traffic, is the fifth post-Pavement album for SM and the first release following a year spent touring with his erstwhile Pavement cohorts. As such it begs the question of how a Malkmus record that was written and recorded in the midst of, and immediately after, a Pavement reunion would sound. But that’s not the only story with Mirror Traffic, there’s also Beck, the album’s producer. The announcement earlier this year that Beck would be behind the board led to all sorts of Internet chatter surrounding the record, especially in relation to his recent production work with both Charlotte Gainsbourg and Thurston Moore. That is, how would his involvement affect the sound? In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Beck said of production: “There’s a perception that if an artist produces another artist, they’re going to imprint on them. But I’m the opposite. I want to hear that artist; I don’t want to hear me– that’s the last thing I want to hear.”
So how does all this play out? In short, this is one of Malkmus’s loveliest albums in years as a large number of ballads and mid-tempo songs wind themselves through Mirror Traffic‘s 50-minute run time. There’s also a subtle lo-fi nature to the record as well, as the bass gets a prominence not heard in previous SM albums. We’re talking about the type of bass that were it much higher in the mix, it would be one of the classic marks of amateur recording. Instead it creates a unique atmosphere. Opener “Tigers” is a perfect example of this and it rears its head most in the album’s jammier songs – notably the wandering “Brain Gallop” and “All Over Gently.” Mirror Traffic isn’t nearly as tightly constructed as 2008’s Real Emotional Trash, however, and despite its modest running time, it could’ve done with some editing. “Spazz” sounds like its name and isn’t nearly as interesting as it attempts to be in its tempo-jumping structure. The aforementioned “All Over Gently” is a late-record stumbling block, the placement of which throws off a great run of songs leading toward the end. And that’s certainly not the only example of this problem; the gorgeous “No One Is (As I Are Be)” has its beauty wasted in the second track spot between “Tigers” and “Senator.” As such the biggest complaint about the album may be that of its sequencing, not necessarily the vast majority of the songs themselves.
The record is full of great moments of pop bliss, both sprightly – “Stick Figures in Love,” “Forever 28” – and great beauty – “Asking Price” and the near-perfect “Fall Away.” Beck’s production suits the material well and the Jicks seem to be gelling perfectly behind Malkmus. It will make hearing them without Janet Weiss (she has left to focus on her band Wild Flag) on tour and on subsequent albums an interesting proposition as Weiss’ God-like presence behind the drums helped Real Emotional Trash edge in as the band’s finest work to date. But for now, while not the equal of its predecessor, Mirror Traffic is still in the top echelon of music created by one of the more consistently interesting musicians of the past twenty years. words/ j neas