Record Related #1: At the Looking Glass


Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Mirror Traffic (Matador) / live at Webster Hall, NYC, 9/25/11

“I’m also a Jick.”
—Stephen Malkmus, Amoeba Hollywood in-store appearance, 8/24/11

Mirror Traffic opens with a fake-out. Just when you think Stephen Malkmus will salvo with a solo, he takes his foot off the petal and does his aging indie-rock smart-alec routine, handing you half a flower. Fine by me. The two-and-a-half-minute “Tigers” is a quick statement of content that gives way to the grizzled balladry of the parataxical title, “No One Is (As I Are Be),” which takes its time over the 4-minute mark. With horn and hum interlude.

So what have we here? A Jicks album, with Mr. Malkmus beaming at the helm. We’ll have a better sense of where we’re headed once we have a quorum of songs. “Senator” motions us to action, pointing forward in the rear-view mirror, right next to that knowing grin. You are fading fast… LOOK OUT!

I’m too old to play / Capture the flag
Entertaining last year’s Pavement reunion seems to have put Stephen Malkmus in a rear-view state of mind, looking forward and backward at once. The album was recorded prior to the tour, but the reunion was certainly on the horizon before the Jicks got together with producer Beck Hanson (remember him?). Let’s say Malkmus can see the traffic in the mirror. However, if the reunion reset his perspective, he seems to have leapt his solo debut and returned to the ethos of his sophomore effort, Pig Lib.

The debut sounded like a vacation from Pavement, breezy and fully front-mannish. His band was the Jicks, but the album, the cover of which featured a mulletted, tanned, pretty-boy shot of Malkmus with a vague ocean line backing him, was called Stephen Malkmus. He seemed to be enjoying himself, even if he forced it on some of the quirkier, poppier numbers (of which there were several). The jam-to-hooks ratio was close to even, which paradoxically made the record seem unbalanced, even schizoid.

Pig Lib stretched out, while setting the balance right. Malkmus became more comfortable (and convincing) as a prog/psych/classic-rock guitarist, adding nuance to the jam-band trajectory he seemed to follow in the second half of the Pavement years. His songwriting got weirder, as did his lyrical references, but the cloying qualities of debut-album songs like “The Hook” and “Jo Jo’s Jacket” no longer seemed to be on the ascendant (“Vanessa From Queens” and “Craw Song” notwithstanding). To be sure, he had his cute moments, but his heart (and maybe even his ass) was in the wilderness (or at least the forests of the Pacific Northwest).

When they talk about bad blood / They don’t mean us / NO!
Mirror Traffic
is either a trial-run for Janet Weiss’ departure, or an argument that the Jicks don’t need her (OK, or a strategy to set the bar within reach of her replacement). Weiss’ playing on the album is the most workmanlike, merely competent drumming she’s done in recent memory. It’s certainly the least ambitious and free drumming she’s done since the revelatory 2003 tour she did as a member of Quasi, in which the band did shows with Hella. Weiss could be seen standing on her toes during Hella sets, enthralled by and absorbing Zach Hill’s psychotic, intricate Animal drumming. The last two albums by Sleater-Kinney (not to mention subsequent work with Quasi) attested to Weiss’ extended technique. On Mirror Traffic, she has a light touch, and sounds anonymous back there. (This certainly isn’t the case in her new outfit, Wild Flag, where her full range is on display.) Perhaps she’s got one stick out the door here. Be seein’ ya!

Is it funny enough
Malkmus solo, and at his best, reverses the lyrics/guitar dynamic from Pavement, in which, as exciting as the music could be, the lyrics always stole the show (or the record; live, guitar ruled). As he has developed post-Pavement, Malkmus has more clearly emphasized guitar, and vocals, over lyrics. Mirror Traffic makes this readily apparent. The songs seem structured around the guitar work, and the lyrics are often tossed-off come-ons that lead into Malkmus’ much more expressive playing. When the lyrics are most effective, the appeal is primarily in their delivery rather than their content. Also, the most interesting phrases break off from hackneyed or flat lines to flap in the amplified winds. There is no doubt about which came first, the music or the lyrics. This is a good thing, since even the more glad-handed songs, like “Senator” (apparently, the senator wants a blowjob, as do we all), transcend verse-chorus-verse structures, so the music raises eyebrows (and joints, if not goat horns) even when the lyrics roll eyes. The warmth—of production, of voice—is where it’s at (thanks in part to Mr. Two-Turntables-and-a-Microphone, Beck Hanson).

Surely There’s not much left in my tank today doesn’t qualify as a classic bon Malkmot, but it leads into some rippin’ fretwork to walk off “Brain Gallop.” The following interlude, the looping, echoing instrumental “Jumblegloss,” manages to evoke classic-mid/late era Pavement and some Factory Records dream. “Asking Price,” which backs the break, extends the trend of husky, Pig Lib­-eratory off-charmers on the album (cf. the former’s “Ramp of Death” and “Animal Midnight”). Here the vocals dance with guitar textures, and if the distortion is way too clear (as “Asking Price” has it—or is it way too dear?), all seems right, even while the world’s a mess. As Mirror Traffic proceeds, the words become a blur (as when Malkmus muffs a line and laughs it off in “Stick Figures in Love”), all for the better.

God speaks through that albino [mini solo]
Though there is room to explore each song, some crack in the harmonic universe to fall into, this is a relatively concise set of songs. The contradiction, subtle as it may be, makes the album a quick trip. This rangy economy is something Malkmus has been capable of, but has rarely committed to for such a stretch. There is no extended jam, no ponderous metal overture, but there are some fancy flights. On Mirror Traffic, Malkmus sets the mind in motion, but leaves something to the imagination, instead of laboriously cruise-directing (granted, he can be a delightful host on long jaunts).

Share the Red [mini solo redux]
Is Malkmus a Jick? Is it accurate to say he is a solo artist? All albums after Stephen Malkmus have been credited to Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks (the exception is 2005’s Face the Truth, which is a proper solo album with added accompaniment), but he’ll likely be considered a solo artist until or unless he puts out an album credited to The Jicks. Now that Janet Weiss’ tenure has proven to be temporary (she leaves to wave a Wild[er] Flag—why play on Malkmus’ team when you can rock with Mary Timony et al? Even Stephen would agree), such a nominal move would seem less genuine—even if reports are true that Malkmus always wanted the group to be called The Jicks, but Matador Records demanded more name recognition. This is not to say Joanna Bolme and Mike Clark, the other tenured Jicks, aren’t charismatic musicians, but they don’t have the presence (or stature) of Malkmus or Weiss. SM may have been the most congenial boy in Pavement, but they were never SM & the Pavements; with the Jicks, he’s the man.

I’m not gonna bait that trap…
. After being on hold for the Pavement reunion tour, the Jicks are coming through at Webster Hall. What they’ve lost in gender balance, with Jake Morris replacing Janet Weiss on the kit, they’ve gained in mustachioed cuddliness. Morris’ projective drumming, as he pushes the sticks into the cymbals and heads, plays well with his thoughtful stage demeanor. He looks polite up there, reliable, and clearly has a feel for these songs.

Joanna Bolme holds the middle of the stage, grounding and deepening the groove. She hangs her hair, holds her bass low, and fulcrums the band, radiating quiet assertion. Perfect separation in the live sound gives each player space, and articulates Malkmus’ playing and singing, giving them an equal weight not achieved on Mirror Traffic. The overall tone is remarkably warm, with just enough edge and snarl, along with the tempo and dynamic shifts, to keep everyone alert.

The crowd is fawning. Malkmus’ first mini solo gets applause, but only after he’s finished, as though he’s just landed a triple-axel and is circling the rink on one leg, arms spreading out at squared hips. I mutter something appreciative to a friend, and someone turns around to ask that I keep it down. It’s getting pretty ’90s in here.

I kill momentum when I can
Back up. As the lights dim for the band’s entrance, side two’s instrumental opener, “Jumblegloss,” plays on the house system. It’s especially ghostly and disorienting as it plays without them (or perhaps Malkmus’ Styrofoam pick rack radiates the track). Even more well-chosen is the first song the Jicks play, Face the Truth’s “Baby C’mon.” In 2005, when the album came out, such a blatant crowd-pleaser would have been too obvious an opener, but tonight it sounds just right. We’ve all been waiting a while for this album and tour, and exuberance is a good trade-in for impatience.

Mirror Traffic’s first cut, “Tigers,” finds the band loose and artfully out of synch, Malkmus singing off the rhythm and knowing it will still be there for him when he re-aligns. Feeling it, he teases the crowd between numbers, saying he hasn’t been here since he saw the Silver Jews a few years ago. Were you all born then? In his business-cut button-up tricked out with ’70s collar and high-water sleeves, he’s a gentle jumble of decades and ages, much like the crowd.

However, he’s here to rock and roll with it. Meanwhile, the audience is spotted with tension. I lean over to say something to my neighbor, and a woman behind us barks WILL YOU SHUT UP ALREADY. Shhh… Indie-rock recital in session.

Nonstop banter heart supplanter
Let’s take a moment to revisit the good senator. What seemed overly catchy, the coercive democratic spirit of what everyone wants is a blowjob, endears over time, and gathers a knowing sensibility that overruns any snark. For the band’s August appearance at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, Malkmus sang an alternate line contributed by an audience member: for one day the senator, and everyone else, wanted a corndog, and the song grew a soul. At Webster Hall he played it up (though the blowjob had long returned), announcing There’s a time for gin… there’s a time for wine… and there’s a time for the senator. Amen, or something. On with the show!

Driving for the dust
It’s been awhile since The Jicks—this show is the best argument I’ve seen for the appellation, capped with a T—recorded this album, so they have a few new ones to roll out, which keeps things fresh. The focus is clearly on realizing Mirror Traffic as a live unit, but there are some well-selected back-catalogue songs as well. Pig Lib’s “Animal Midnight” makes a graceful return, fitting well with the honey-and-sand numbers on the more recent album. The encore opens with a new song, “Planetary Motion,” which comes off half baked, and concludes with the epic “1% of One.” Malkmus then has a moment of indecision, considering another post-script—appropriate enough, since “1% of One” is the penultimate track on Pig Lib—then decides to leave it at that. Between those encore bookends comes “No One Is (As I Are Be),” a highlight of both Mirror Traffic and the evening. Malkmus plays the horn part on guitar, and the rhythm section fills in for his studio humming. Unfortunately none of us will get away spared / from the never-ending nightlife that we shared, SM sings, and we nod along, looking forward and back. We’re ready for that Jicks album.

Jeff T. Johnson’s music and culture essays have appeared in Coldfront, Fanzine, The New Yinzer, and Kitchen Sink, among other publications. His poetry is forthcoming or has appeared in 1913 a journal of forms, Boston Review, Slope, and Forklift, Ohio. He lives in Brooklyn, is editor in chief at LIT, and is an editor at Dewclaw. For more information, visit More from this author →