Stephen Malkmus heading to Los Angeles with the Jicks reads dangerously after his decidedly organized and fluffy 2008 release, Real Emotional Trash. Add Beck as producer and x-factor and suddenly anything’s possible, but there was still a relentless sense that something decidedly stale and inescapably in the mold of ’90s indie rock would surface. That nagging suspicion turned out to be so pesky because it was actually close to a premonition. With Malkmus’ whole catalog taken into account, one would likely not make the mistake of thinking it came out before 2005. But is this necessarily a bad thing?
To some extent, yes. It’s hard not to wax nostalgic at least once. There’s the awkwardly poignant lyrics and social commentary on “Senator” that leaves one to pine for “Embassy Row” and its more abstract attacks and anthemic riffs. Western ballad “Long Hard Book” sounds a bit like a middle-aged “Stop Breathin’.” The alternating flavors in “Spazz” come off as juxtapositions all too abstract, when every track on Starlite Walker is so simple and consistent, yet each transformational in their own right.
But just when you’re ready to switch over to something of more well aged vintage, there’s the near-psychedelia of “Jumblegloss.” Granted, it’s only one minute and 13 seconds long, but it’s nonetheless evidence of the band thinking outside the box. And then there’s Malkmus’ impeccable ability to mimic guitar riffs with words, as on “Asking Price,” which serves as a reminder that, no matter how old he gets, you should still tune in.
These glimmers of freshness are what make Mirror Traffic a promising result for Malkmus fans – especially considering Silver Jews devotees probably gave up on Malkmus somewhere around the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And while Pavement lifers may still be listening, Real Emotional Trash all but sealed an over-the-hill mindset (and rightly so). But still, it would appear as though Malkmus and the Jicks have already hit (and thankfully moved on from) their artistic nadir with cuts like the 10-minute noodling session of “Real Emotional Trash” and the overt pop aesthetics of “Cold Son.” And keep in mind, for all my bashing of the group’s prior release, Real Emotional Trash is not even half bad, it’s just not “cool.” Mirror Traffic isn’t, on the whole, “cool” either, but it does show fans that Malkmus recognizes the difference.