The Indie Rock ‘Splosion of the 1990s brought us plenty of great music, and Pavement was at the forefront. After the band’s acrimonious split in 1999, frontman Stephen Malkmus wasted little time staking out his solo identity: his first solo album was released in 2001 and three more followed in quick succession before the band improbably reunited last year to cash in on the reunion fever that swept the alt-rock world. But the Pavement reunion was limited to touring. Malkmus was insistent that he would write no more Pavement songs, and sure enough, he and his backing band The Jicks have released Mirror Traffic.
Produced by Beck, the 15-song album continues with the jam-friendly direction Malkmus has taken in his solo career, with plenty of tasty guitar solos sprinkled liberally throughout. Malkmus’ guitar chops have grown by leaps and bounds since the Pavement days, and they were pretty good then. The psychedelic-flavored solo that closes out “Brain Gallop” is outstanding. “Spazz” and “Tune Grief” probably come closest to sounding like old Pavement, bringing the uptempo rock. “Long Hard Book” takes an alt-country approach, while “Gorgeous Georgie” brings the album to a majestic close and could have fit on the last Pavement album, Terror Twilight, which was essentially a Malkmus solo album anyway.
As opposed to Pavement’s fractured indie rock leanings, Malkmus and the Jicks prefer a languid, mid-tempo approach, often building to rocking crescendos with Malkmus leading the way with his fuzz-drenched guitar work. Former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, one of the best drummers in rock, provides the understated backbeat; she lets loose a lot more in the live setting. (Alas, she has left the band to concentrate full-time on indie supergroup Wild Flag, while Jake Morris of The Joggers will replace her on the upcoming Malkmus tour in September.) Joanna Bolme on bass and Mike Clark on piano and keyboards fill out the Jicks sound. One difference between Mirror Traffic and its predecessor, 2008’s Real Emotional Trash, is its brevity; three songs are in the 5-minute range, but most are much shorter. On Real Emotional Trash and Malkmus’ previous releases, there are songs that ran 8, 9 and even 10 minutes as the band stretched out its jam chops.
Although the sound has changed from his Pavement days, Malkmus has not lost his way with interesting lyrics. The song “Senator” is a jaunty tune that includes the already notorious line “I know what the senator wants/What the senator wants is a blow job.” Sure, it’s timely, given the fact a political sex scandal seems to erupt every other week. But to get it radio playable, Malkmus held a contest asking fans to submit a substitute for the words “blow job”; the winning submission was “corn dog,” no doubt a reference to presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann’s unintentionally hilarious photo op at the Iowa straw poll. Of course, whether any radio station would actually have the good taste to play a Malkmus song is another question.
No doubt there are Pavement fans who disapprove of Malkmus’ musical shift and wish he would record albums in the vein of Slanted and Enchanted or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Ain’t gonna happen, folks, but you can always go back to your well-worn copies of those classic albums, or the more recent reissues. But for those of us who don’t mind seeing artists progress, Mirror Traffic is yet another interesting release from an indie rock godfather at the top of his game.