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Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks - Mirror Traffic

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Artist: Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks

Album: Mirror Traffic

Label: Matador

Review date: Aug. 23, 2011

Pavement created music that was playful, weird, innovative and joyful. Stephen Malkmus’ solo efforts since the band’s first break-up in 2000, have kept some of the playfulness and some of the joy, but have largely left the weirdness and innovation by the wayside. Attribute it to age or exhaustion if you want, but there’s an easier explanation — the auteur theory is a load of bunk and what made Pavement (or what makes any band) good was the interactions between the members.

I wrote about this when I discussed Akron/Family’s Set ‘Em Wild, Set Em Free. When the chemistry is right (and “chemistry” just means that the interactions between the members of the group create stability), a group of artists collaborating is a more efficient machine for creating odd ideas and innovations. It’s the same thing with art movements or communities – the people in those groups may be individuals, but by bouncing ideas off each other, allowing the ideas to accrete new dimensions or shed deficient elements, the results are often way more interesting and truthful than if the artist had been off on his or her own. (This is perhaps what makes genuinely unique outsider artists so truly fascinating — they often create this process on their own.) Malkmus and the rest of Pavement were able to combine their influences in interesting ways that weren’t merely academic; they had a vitality to them.

If you can come to terms with Malkmus as just a piece of the Pavement puzzle (admittedly a move that I had resisted), you realize that much of his solo work isn’t sub-standard. It’s just different. Lamenting that has never made sense, but it’s especially pointless now, considering the strength of SM’s new album with The Jicks, Mirror Traffic. I find myself re-playing many of the songs in my mind at odd hours. That seems to be the mark of good, or at least effective, music — does it infect you? Do you crave it?

Malkmus’ tendency to noodle in a jam-band fashion has been a sticking point for Pavement fans during the past 10 years, and I’m no exception in that regard. Some fans I know have defended the tangents on the grounds of virtuosity; others use the downtime for massive bong rips. I see the fret-board adventures as tediously self-indulgent. Great solos have power and purpose; they take the aesthetic force the song has built up already and heighten it. That hasn’t been the case on most of SM’s solo records, but on Mirror Traffic, there’s a recapturing of the joy he clearly felt on Pavement’s final full-length, Terror Twilight.

In the past, I’ve decried SM’s classic rock indulgences because it felt like he was moving backward. Pavement’s music had some classic rock facets, but the band reinterpreted it through the filters of punk and college rock. Because Malkmus chose not to build on that innovation, SM’s solo work in the 2000s felt slim and attenuated by comparison. Mirror Traffic arrests those indulgences and presents Pavement fans the best opportunity yet to stop worrying and love The Jicks.

By Andrew Beckerman

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