Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
[Rating: 4 stars]
It seems too soon to refer to Stephen Malkmus and producer Beck Hansen as “grand old men of the ‘90s college rock scene”–anything quite so moth-ballish would belie the vitality of Malkmus’s fifth post-Pavement outing–but the collaboration seems perfect, inevitable, and long overdue. Splitting time between fractured indie rock (“Stick Figures in Love,” “Forever 28”) and laid-back grooves (“No One Is [As I Are Be],” “Gorgeous George”), the new Jicks album benefits from Beck’s imaginative treatment, which foregrounds headphone moments while not stinting on pure, spontaneous rock goodness, and Malkmus’s songwriting, which sounds inspired and confident.
This fresh inspiration is most evident on the album’s first single, the beautifully dissonant, exuberant “Senator,” with its now-famous punchline chorus (“What the senator wants is a blow job”) that foretells the hell/hand-basket future of the U.S., but even the less overtly catchy tracks here unfold in their own time, offering melodic gifts and encouraging old-school album-length listening sessions.
Throughout, Malkmus’s guitar work shimmers, as on “Fall Away” a lovely, Velvets-y meditation on mortality, enlivened by subtle pedal steel, or the opening track (and second single) “Tigers,” driven by a raggedy but persuasive guitar riff and forceful drumming, courtesy of now-former member Janet Weiss). “Spazz” morphs back and forth from a jazzy romp to several shades of noise rock with head-spinning frequency, while “Jumblegloss,” a brief, gorgeously woozy instrumental interlude, provides a moment of contemplative psychedelia.
Malkmus’s semi-cryptic lyrical approach hasn’t changed much since his Pavement days; the words are potent and often humorous, but seem tossed-off. Whether that’s a bug or a feature is hard to say at this point in his career, but his fans seem to love it, and he makes up for it by couching his words in challenging, interesting song structures and odd-ball hooks. Pavement fans (who turned out in record numbers to see their heroes’ 2010 reunion tour) will no doubt be pleased with Mirror Traffic, but more importantly, this could be the Jicks album that attracts a whole new audience with no previous associations with his former band.