September 14, 2011

Test Spins: Stephen Malkmus, Mirror Traffic

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For an album coming from the 45-year-old former member of rock outfit Pavement, Mirror Traffic is a decidedly youthful album. One imagines a flannel wearing, shaggy haired teenager thrashing around his garage while screaming the album’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics. But it’s no wonder that the latest tunes from Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks take on an teen angsty attitude; for the Jicks’ fifth musical outing, Malkmus enlisted ‘90s slacker icon-turned-indie producer of the moment Beck (just ask Thurston Moore or Charlotte Gainsbourg). The marriage of Malkmus’ lyrical moodiness and childlike wail and Beck’s juvenile yet polished production makes for a marvelous, if not lengthy record.

Mirror Traffic starts off with a catchy, upbeat little number called “Tigers,” on which we are first exposed to the record’s punk attitude and gloriously snarky lyrics. Throughout the record, the lyrics never fail to be totally endearing, starting off with the disc’s first lines: “I caught you streaking in your Birkenstocks/A scary thought in the two K’s.” On the lead single “Senator,” Malkmus takes on sex-crazed politicians with a chorus that pretty much says it all. We can practically hear Malkmus’ smirk. Malkmus’ rage stomps onto the otherwise laidback collection of songs on the rock track “Spazz,” on which Malkmus whines with teenage melancholy, “I feel like a total goner/How long till we fall in love?” Likewise, Malkmus takes on the role of a dejected adolescent on the pop ditty “Forever 28”: “I kill momentum when I can/There’s no parade I cannot ruin with my poison eyes.” Accompanied with Malkmus’ youthful vocals, his lyrics make us think that we’re listening to an indie underdog rather than an aging rock icon.

While the lyrics of Mirror Traffic clearly have their rightful amount of charm, it is the record’s instrumentation that shines, thanks in part to Beck’s arrangements. Some songs contain sweetly acoustic melodies, while others plough through your earbuds with fuzzy distortion. Those familiar with Beck’s work can hear the blues-rock veteran’s trademark stylings throughout the record. The lovely acoustic cut, “No One (Is As I Are Be),” easily could have been on Sea Change, while the lo-fi pop track “Stick Figures in Love” could have been on Beck’s latest release, 2008’s Modern Guilt.

It’s clear that Beck and Malkmus are perfect for each other, and upon one’s first listen, it’s obvious that the two rock icons had a blast making the record. There is a clear 50-50 collaboration here. Beck respectfully lets Malkmus do his thing on the music and lyrics, and Malkmus willingly lets Beck work his magic in the production. While Beck has evidently grown up from his “Loser” days of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into his songs and has since taken a more polished approach, Malkmus’ direct and mischievous lyrics and garage-rock instrumentation allow Beck to let his former self sneak in. On Mirror Traffic, we’re able to hear both Malkmus and Beck at their best, most lively selves, and the album proves that they are two rock stars who have only gotten better with age.

Original Author: Sydney Ramsden