Indie-rock architect Stephen Malkmus and his Jicks land exactly where you'd hope with the Beck-produced Mirror Traffic 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Malkmus

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Malkmus

Pixies. Guided by Voices. Pavement. All immensely influential indie-rock outfits of the '80s and '90s who have reunited in recent years for cash-grab revisitation tours behind their seminal releases. All outfits whose frontmen have launched side and solo projects in the past two decades, and all outfits that belong in the highest echelon of the now-middle-aged Indie Rock God Pantheon.

It's a pantheon that casts a pretty grand, unyielding shadow — funny, considering the perceived slackerdom, DIY ethos and general anti-establishment aesthetic within which the aforementioned bands found their genesis. But here they are, bands formed 20 or 30 years ago by stoners and college kids, all vindicated in history's eyes and ready to take their place alongside classic-rock and punk-rock legends as genre-defining untouchables.

So where does that leave the side and solo projects of frontmen like Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard, Pixies' Frank Black and Pavement's Stephen Malkmus? Mere footnotes in the indie-rock annals? Vanity projects for softening former rock gods? Well, at least in the case of Malkmus and his Jicks, absolutely not.

Themselves an established act with 10 years and five LPs under their belt, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks formed within a year of Pavement's demise and have toured and recorded regularly since. Their latest, August's Mirror Traffic, was written and recorded before Malkmus embarked with the reunited (for a limited time only) Pavement for a worldwide tour in 2010. Jicks bassist Joanna Bolme — herself an established multi-instrumentalist and engineer who has been with The Jicks from the start, and who has played with acts including Quasi and Elliott Smith — explains that Malkmus & Co. wanted to get Traffic done in a concise fashion. "We wanted to hand the reins over to somebody for [Mirror Traffic]," says Bolme. "We had talked about it, because sometimes it moved real slowly when everybody's sort of chiming in.  [2008's] Real Emotional Trash took a long time, and we wanted to move faster. So we thought that it might be cool to bring in a more producer-y type person."

And the producer-y type person they opted to go with just so happens to cast a pretty big shadow himself.

"Just about that time Beck called Steve and asked him if he wanted to work on something, so that seemed like a perfect in-between — a producer and another musician. So he was less like an overlord and more like a collaborator or something. ... It was pretty easy, you know? He was more likely to have suggestions about [the songs] than hardcore ideas about how things should be."

Beck — who had perhaps as much of a mainstream cultural impact as just about anyone who came out of the '90s alt-rock scene (not including Cobain, of course) — has been broadening his producer credits in recent years, taking on albums from Charlotte Gainsbourg and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. While many might argue that Beck, as an artist, has never made a bad album, it's fair to say that his past three releases (Guero, The Information and Modern Guilt) generally aren't considered as challenging or inspired as, say, Odelay or Sea Change.

Perhaps, however, Beck is getting that much-lauded idiosyncratic groove of his back — only, this time, it's behind the scenes. From the first nimble but somehow elegantly simple notes of album-opener "Tigers," Mirror Traffic is quite clearly a Malkmus joint, and one that hasn't been stepped on by the unwelcome vision of an overreaching producer. "I caught you streakin' in your Birkenstocks," sings Malkmus — the very first lyrics on the record, "A scary thought in the 2-Ks." And the lyrics ramble on from there, as delectably informed by Malkmus' half-goofy, half-incisive stream of consciousness as ever. The riffs are so wiry and Malkmusian that you hardly notice the subtle sweeps of pedal steel here and there.

Sure, Traffic steps pretty far outside of the indie-rock box on occasion, as with the laid-back and country-influenced "No One Is (as I Are Be)," its gentle horns and harmonica strains unlikely and more reminiscent of Lee Hazlewood or some other '70s AM-country artist than anything in Pavement's or The Jicks' respective catalogs.

But Mirror Traffic — from the gloriously fuzzy, punchy lead riff of "Stick Figures in Love" to the laid-back expanse of "Long Hard Book" — doesn't suffer due to lack of focus, and the production doesn't skew overambitious in Beck's hands. Rather, the record fits together with unlikely grace — each song a jigsaw piece in Malkmus' now familiar puzzle — all telling us what Malkmus and his guitar have been trying to say all along: Weird music can be pop, and pop music can be weird.

In fact, Mirror Traffic says that about as loudly as any Malkmus-fronted record ever has — proof that at least one member of the now-middle-aged Indie Rock God Pantheon has some relevant arrows left in that sonic quiver of his.


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