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Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, ‘Mirror Traffic’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: August 23, 2011
Label: Matador

“No one is your perfect fit / I do not believe in that shit,” Stephen Malkmus confides over lightly distorted electric guitar on “Forever 28,” from the 45-year-old father of two’s fifth album since his former band, Pavement, split more than a decade ago. Then, coloring those chords with jazzier notes, he warbles, “Don’t you know that every bubble bursts / Kill me.” His current band, the Jicks, soon join in with a sunny bounce that recalls Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky.”

It’s a moment that epitomizes Mirror Traffic, a patient, inviting album that feels like a fresh start from a guy whose recording career spans multiple boom-and-bust cycles, both for indie rock and the economy. Pavement’s best-of compilation and globe-trotting reunion tour last year left the perennially underachieving group finally resembling what some critics had been calling them all along: the preeminent band of the ’90s. Produced by another of that decade’s so-called slackers — Beck Hansen — Malkmus and the Jicks’ latest responds to all that success, in true Malkmus fashion, not with blatant nostalgia, nor with some pathetic stab at timeliness, but with a thoroughly beguiling roll of the eyes.

Malkmus and the Jicks may reside in Portland, Oregon — where, per Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s Portlandia, “the dream of the ’90s is alive” — but unlike, say, Billy Corgan, both Malkmus and Beck have continued to evolve since their Clinton-era commercial peaks. Over the course of his four post-Pavement albums, Malkmus has toyed with electronics (2005’s Face the Truth) and explored 1970s gnarled-guitar workouts (2003’s Pig Lib, 2008’s Real Emotional Trash). And Beck? Since wrapping up his major-label deal a couple of years ago, the 41-year-old Los Angeleno has been in the full bloom of a career revitalization, most recently producing Thurston Moore’s superb Demolished Thoughts.

Where Real Emotional Trash began on a quasi-autobiographical note, Mirror Traffic opener “Tigers” leads with a farcical scene worthy of Will Ferrell: “I caught you streaking in your Birkenstocks / A scary thought / In the 2Ks.” And where that last album was Malkmus and the Jicks’ most stylistically unified, Mirror Traffic is both more varied and more focused. Malkmus dismisses sit-ups as “so bourgeoisie” over Wes Anderson-ready chamber pop, revels in “putzing ’round the Internet” over spidery guitar and warm keyboards that inexplicably crackle with cellphone distortion, and condemns himself as a mortally doomed “one-trick pony” over pedal-steel-drenched, Updike-referencing alt country.

Millennials who chafe at Generation X’s shrugging anti-dominance and Pavement’s mocking of arena-rock idols, take note: Malkmus and Co. are not half-assing it here. Pavement, even at their best, never had anything like the Jicks’ adroit nonchalance. Captured here mostly over two days in L.A., after the completion of a 2009 world tour, the band have the punchy, relaxed assurance of a group of pros who know exactly how many beers they can drink and still hit their marks.

If Mirror Traffic has an overriding theme, it’s not the coming-of-age goose bumps of new-school ’90s acolytes Pains of Being Pure at Heart or Yuck. It’s impending death. “I know what everyone wants / What everyone wants is a blowjob,” Malkmus howls on stoned romp “Senator.” How can he be sure? “You are fading fast / You are fading fast / You are gone.” The album’s last words are “fall to dust.” At least Malkmus prefaces them with a blaze of ragged guitar glory.