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Mirror Traffic

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Submitted By jwickens1
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http://altohio.com/mirror-traffic

Mirror Traffic, the fifth release from Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks is the glorious distillation of the S.M. oeuvre. Produced by Beck Hanson, the album maintains the lanky looseness of former Jicks-backed offerings even as its songs are condensed down to their respective essences—several tracks clock in at less than three minutes, a stark contrast to previous records where 10-minute guitar odysseys were becoming common. Much like Bob Dylan’s twenty-first century output, Mirror Traffic digs through the past to repurpose musical styles, from psychedelic LA country to first-wave British punk, twisting them into new but familiar shapes.

Beck’s role as producer seems split between tightening up the performances and curating the palette of stylistic overlays drawn from the Rock History vault. On “Long Hard Book,” reverb-soaked slide guitar evoke desert midnight, while the chorus’s pedal steel pairs with Joanna Bolme’s spot-on Emmy Lou Harris impression to create an afterimage of some long-lost Grievous Angel outtake, until a fuzzed-out guitar outro pulls the listener back into unmistakably Malkmusian territory. “Tune Grief” is the song the Buzzcocks might’ve recorded if they’d grown up in southern California, a short punchy track complete with single-note guitar solo and beach-bright backing vocals. All of Mirror Traffic’s influences have surfaced in Malkmus’ previous work, from Watery, Domestic onward, but here, arguably benefitting from its producers influence, are employed with impeccable taste.

Malkmus’ lyrics demand collaboration with the listener—they are in-jokes stacked into abstract architecture and require an open mind equipped with archeological inclinations. An example, the opening lines" from “Asking Price”: “It came delivered on a frozen rope/Indecision antidote/ The frame is narrow, can’t you see/Paralyzed, no clarity.” The meaning drifts into focus as the song unwinds, but the lead is surely, intentionally buried. Comparisons to Bob Dylan drifted around Malkmus’ contributions to the I’m Not There soundtrack, and most were analytically sound; Mirror Traffic’s lyrics are oblique but affecting, faux-casual displays of family snapshots, with all identifying markings redacted, chronology and context purposefully confused. This aesthetic has been an either/or divider for Malkmus as an artist, in much the same way that Tom Waits’ rusty-exhaust-pipe vocals are polarizing; listeners love the challenge or detest the pretense. Adherents like myself enjoy the narrative gaps in between Malkmus’ lyrical hieroglyphs where we can choose our own adventures and overlay our own experience.

The Jicks do a powerful job of playing with and against Malkmus’ fractured pop sensibilities, smoothing the pockets of odd time signatures and brief key changes into natural, even inevitable events within the songs. Swampy electric piano and chunky bass lines provide solid yet supple support while still maintaining an sliver of rickety garage-rock edge. Drummer Janet Weiss (formerly of Slater-Kinney, presently of Wild Flag) gives a nuanced and dynamic performance (sadly, her last as a Jick), moving seamlessly from gentle Nashville backbeat to indie-rock mania , sometimes within the boundaries of a single tune. Again, Beck’s production goes a long way towards maximizing the potential of the band’s performances by encouraging tighter arrangements while still salvaging the 3-D sound of an exceptional live band performing together in a room.

This the element that has gelled on Mirror Traffic; the pro chops have at last fully emerged from the closet of amateur pose but have not taken over; the past collaborates with the present in an artful and heartfelt way. Mirror Traffic shows Malkmus’ all grown up and delivering his most nuanced and affecting offering to date.

-James Wickens
Aug 2011

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