Stephen Malkmus’s first solo album is potentially the best album his band Pavement never made. That’s hardly surprising since some of the songs were being worked on for a Pavement record prior to their break-up. His follow up release ‘Pig Lib’ – delivered a couple of years later – is angular and wilfully difficult in places, as if he wished to take a step back from the (relatively) commercial edges his music had moved towards. His next few releases have their moments, sometimes moving towards psychedelia and even farther away from Pavement-esque sounds.
In 2010, Pavement reformed for a bunch of live shows, though rather unsurprisingly, no new material was recorded. His first work since that brief reunion, Malkmus’s 2011 release ‘Mirror Traffic’ could be his most consistent release for a decade; with well crafted tunes and often oblique lyrical slant, most of its fifteen numbers are on a par with those from Malkmus’s solo debut. Whether or not it was a direct influence from those live shows, this album has more in common with Malkmus’s former band than his previous couple of releases. Fans may choose to debate the amount of Pavement-ness at the heart of ‘Mirror Traffic’, but whatever, SM and his band sound really inspired throughout; the songs themselves are given an extra lift by a great production, courtesy of one of their closest peers – the legendary Beck.
The lead single ‘Tigers’ is a brilliant, brilliant piece of slacker-pop. A ringing guitar lead, soft harmony filled chorus and slight country edge are all topped off with SM’s Lou Reed-esque vocal wandering. It’s an almost perfect marriage of alternative rock and radio friendly pop chorus. The lead guitar works a riff which is almost a hook in itself, while a steel guitar lurking in the background lends that air of country rock which pulls everything together. The fuzzy rock and roll of ‘Tune Grief’ showcases a far more throwaway rock n roll side to the band, with SM’s semi-distorted vocals counterbalanced by some sharp male woo-woo’s and some female harmonies. This, too, is enjoyable (albeit in a completely different way), but it’s with the slacker-rock of ‘Forever 28’ the band excels once again. The track combines an ELO style rumpty-tumpty strut, combined with Pavement-esque changes in pace (almost as if the band are winding down like clockwork) and a few interesting guitar leads. There may be imitators, but this number represents the kind of thing that only Malkmus manages to such exceptional levels.
With its harsher vocals and almost constantly shifting time signature, the offensively (and unnecessarily) named ‘Spazz’ is the closest ‘Mirror Traffic gets to ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ or ‘Crooked Rain’ territory, and even then, there’s a degree of sophistication here that’s lacking on those earlier Pavement records (probably the lack of Bob Nastanovich’s shouting!). The verses combine a quick pace and an offbeat to superb effect, but it’s the slower tempos creeping in which are most reminiscent of Pavement. The track’s best moments are during the slow, mostly instrumental mid-section where the guitars have a hint of the Grateful Dead and the vocals pull together for a wordless harmony. The slow, brooding ‘Share The Red’ is a rather ordinary indie-rock/slacker number, with a touch of Pavement numbers like ‘Transport Is Arranged’ present. The noodling guitars provide some enjoyment, but long time fans are likely to sense some déjà vu here.
‘Jumblegloss’ acts as a brief interlude, but it’s minute and a quarter is great in its own right, with SM’s reverbed guitar lines laying down something which sounds like a movie score, set against Jake Morris’s slightly jazzy drum part. ‘Asking Price’ is understated; Malkmus’s almost spoken delivery finds a great place atop of clean guitars, a solid bassline and some electric piano. In terms of overall feel, it’s not too far removed from the gentler end of Pavement’s ‘Terror Twilight’, but the addition of the electric piano is definitely a plus, even if it could have been used a little more. ‘Stick Figures In Love’ ups the pace and isn’t anywhere near as good, despite the inclusion of a breezy guitar riff providing an instant hook while, once again, Morris’s occasionally offbeat drumming is allocated plenty of room in the mix. It’s not a bad track by any means, but since the quality threshold of this album is so high, this feels like more like filler than perhaps it would have done, had it appeared on any of SM’s other records.
‘No One Is (As I Are Be)’ is an acoustic workout, with finger-picked guitar lines and buzzing strings. Rather uncharacteristic for SM, this number has a sixties vibe and shows the band in a great light when tackling something relatively simple. The instrumental break – where you’d probably expect a slightly distorted guitar – appears to feature a slightly distorted trumpet (or maybe a French horn), which eventually gets complimented by a piano and tinkling glockenspiel. It’s lovely stuff indeed, which brings maturity without sounding tired or stale. ‘Fall Away’ is also soft, but with a bigger focus on vocal arrangements, as the whole band sing harmonies against an otherwise ordinary number.
With Stephen Malkmus’s off-centre approach to song writing and musical structures, there’s always a strong possibility of any of his albums missing the mark, but ‘Mirror Traffic’ is great, with no obvious skippers. It’s one which, in the main, fans will certainly enjoy, but it’s also a reasonable entry point to the works of Steven Malkmus for the uninitiated.