Northeast Underground

Out now: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks team up with Beck on new album Mirror Traffic

Mirror Traffic (album cover)

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

Mirror Traffic

(Matador)

Release date: August 23, 2011

When describing the critical-acclaim surrounding his latest release and first-time collaboration with fellow ‘90s fave Beck, Stephen Malkmus is nothing if not puzzled.

“How come these people like us?” the former Pavement singer said in a recent New York Times interview.

“It’s just because they’re used to us,” Beck answered. “Their resistance has been broken down.”

Well, damn it if the eccentric folkie responsible for penning the slacker anthem “Loser” isn’t right in his diagnosis.

In the midst of what appears to be an ongoing Generation X nostalgia wave, these pair of indie icons seem primed for a career resurgence of sorts.

Just look at the evidence: MTV is bringing back “Beavis and Butt-head and “120 Minutes.” Nirvana’s seminal album Nevermind is celebrating its 20th anniversary. And even the flannel-wearing alternative stalwarts of Pearl Jam are set to premiere a documentary that spans their entire career.

What’s next? A “Reality Bites remake starring Justin Bieber and that girl from the “Friday” video?

While I very much doubt the Bieb’s ability to pull off a scraggly Ethan Hawke imitation, one thing I do not doubt is the credentials that Mr. Malkmus and Beck bring to their latest endeavor.

For starters, fresh from his highly-publicized reunion tour with Pavement, Malkmus has apparently retained much of the lyrical absurdity and lackadaisical playing style that came to define his former indie rock group at its peak.

Take for instance one of Mirror Traffic's standout tracks “Senator,” which mixes lines about politics, chemical warfare and blowjobs with equal aplomb.

Elsewhere, the instrumental number “Jumblegloss” plays like what could have been a too-short outtake from the records Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain or Wowee Zowee.

Yet for all the nods to the past, the one adjective that could best be used to describe Malkmus’ current work is mature. Having already cut four albums with Jicks, this newest one lets the band build on all the progress made on 2008’s Real Emotional Trash. There’s even a noticeable ‘70s guitar tinge to “Long Hard Book” that could make it this release’s “Hopscotch Willie” only more focused and not as jam-inspired.

Watch video of Stephen Malkmus performing new tracks “Tigers” and “No One Is (As I Are Be)” on solo acoustic guitar in Paris here:

As for Beck, he’s downplayed his contributions to Mirror Traffic in the press. But according to former Jick drummer Janet Weiss, who plays on the album but left the group after its recording, the producer had a hand in almost every aspect of the recording process, including song selection.

“A lot of it was throwaway stuff that Beck just fell in love with,” she told the New York Times. “There were some uncomfortable moments of, wow, we have no control over anything that’s happening.”

But she added, “It sounded really awesome.”

Though some fans may become skeptical after reading about the album’s 50 minute plus running time, most concerns can be checked safely at the door.

Yes, the record often changes genres as quickly as some actresses change boyfriends. And sure, not all the tracks present are flat-out winners or the second coming of Pavement gems like “Cut Your Hair” or “Summer Babe.” But many numbers do manage to reveal hidden charms after several listens, and if witty wordplay is your thing then be prepared for pearls of wisdom like “I cannot even do one sit-up. Sit-ups are so bourgeoisie.”

In an age where most music verges on the edge of disposability and pop singles have about as much depth as a spit cup at the dentist’s office, it’s refreshing to see two musicians join forces for a trip down memory lane that feels as contemporary now as it would have 20 years ago.

By all signs that period of time could have its day once again, and if Mirror Traffic is any indication that day could be soon too.

Here’s to waiting with open arms for such an eventuality. But in the meantime...

Listen to a full-length stream of Mirror Traffic via NPR here.

And for more information on Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks or to see future tour dates please visit www.stephenmalkmus.com.

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