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Stephen Malkmus
Mirror Traffic Alfred Soto , August 30th, 2011 06:43

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"There's no alacrity," the singer-songwriter avers, and, boy, he means it. Buried at the end of Mirror Traffic, his fifth album since Pavement dissolved in the late nineties, 'Fall Away' does all Stephen Malkmus can do in 2011: marry an aphorism—preferably one with a polysyllabic—to a melody shaped like an isosceles triangle, attach a serpentine guitar lick, and avoid tripping over the loping rhythm. Aging rockers revert to conversational cadences as unavoidably as they keep to one glass of wine before dinner; the trouble with Malkmus is how quickly he lost interest in the breathless tunelets with which Pavement carved its initial reputation. His solo years document a lapse into the binaries his Pavement music avoided: "song" albums (the eponymous debut, Face the Truth) preceded "jam" ones ( Pig Lib and Real Emotional Trash), with the first group representing the folly of singer-songwriter "craftsmanship" and the second how craftsmanshp can curdle spontanenity, like lemon juice in milk.

But Malkmus has studied the Aging Rocker textbook: he's hired an outside producer to "shake things up" or something, this one infamous for affecting spontaneity at will. However, Paul McCartney working with Nigel Goodrich still sounds like McCartney, so other than the rolling piano arpeggios, harmonica, and quiet horn arrangement over the last minute of 'No One Is (As I Are Be)' it's just as hard to catch Beck's aural signposts on Mirror Traffic. If anything, Malkmus, allowing the album's rote tunefulness to dissipate over the course of sixteen songs, is as uninhibited as ever; the Jicks, allowed a performing credit, are as wan as 10,000 Maniacs covering 10,000 Maniacs. There's just too much Malkmus, too much failed quirk; he's like a Little League coach ordering kids to follow strategies that are beyond their comprehension. And that ol' devil craftsmanship ensures that the lyrics find musical correlatives, as on 'Senator', one of his usual crypto-narratives and dependent on stop-start dynamics that place the emphasis on the line "All the senator wants is a blowjob." Of course disgraced former congressman and airport bathroom connoisseur Larry Craig can handle the opprobrium and then some, but Malkmus sounds as convincing as Tom Cruise shouting "penis" in Born on the Fourth of July.

Mirror Traffic is the kind of album that makes you loathe college education, if only because of the contortions to which zealous smart alecks Malkmus subjects the language. The soft-focus, pearly Wowee Zowee, which augured Malkmus' quiet phase, boasted things like 'Motion Suggests' where the opacity was itself the point but his guitar and lovebuzzed whine intertwined like Mick 'n' Keef's harmonies; he was drowning for your thirst, and you wanted to take him home to iron his long-sleeved shirt. On Mirror Traffic he still takes small risks like the martial drum-anchored freakout in 'Forever 28' that is Janet Weiss' finest moment here or the giant distorto-riff coursing through the excellently titled 'Stick Figures in Love', but as a singer and controlling force he's lost interest in inhabiting these scenarios. For every no-nonsense moment like the electric piano accompanying the buoyant couplet "There's been some soft grass grown between us / When they talk about bad blood they don't mean us" in 'All Over Gently', there's the one about chasing a girl in Birkenstocks—an embarrassment for everyone involved. He's got archness, miles and miles of archness, and it's wasted.

It's possible that my brain already holds as many Malkmus aphorisms as it can handle: "The language of influence is cluttered with hard, hard Cs" (1997's 'Starlings in the Slipstream') and "I had a crap gin and tonic / It wounded me" (2001's "Pink India") happen to be both absurd and true (ask my favorite bartender about the latter). It's possible that listening to those songs for the first time now would nauseate me. Dense, professional, and thoroughly realized, Mirror Traffic will become a lot of people's favorite Malkmus album. He sounds more like Malkmus than ever, and it makes me shiver. But consider: he's, thankfully, doomed never to woo the unconverted again. Carrion is what we all become, brother.

Dan
Aug 30, 2011 11:04am

Not heard the record so I could be way off the mark, but this review reads like 'massive fan boy disappointed artist disinterested in pleasing him specifically'. See also: Pitchfork's review of Travis Morrison's first record.

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John Doran
Aug 30, 2011 11:31am

In reply to Dan:

Not heard the record so I could be way off the mark, but this post reads like 'massive fan boy disappointed at critical review of new album by his rapidly diminishing in quality crush'. See also: comments left after every review of a Black Francis album ever.

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Dan
Aug 30, 2011 11:34am

In reply to John Doran:

I see what you did there. This reads like protective editor in sterling defensive play toward hot young talent. Makes me shed a tear. See also: Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe (in the mind of Cameron Crowe).

(I'm totally open to it being as much of a chore as Mr. Soto says, I'm definitely not a Pavement fanboy. Your writer clearly is! No criticism, like)

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Charlie Frame
Aug 30, 2011 4:23pm

I have heard the album, and I have to agree with Alfred here to an extent. It's not as though all the ingredients aren't present in the recipe - indeed some of those ingredients might be fresher and more flavoursome than ever. But I can't help thinking when I listen to Mirror Traffic - did Malkmus always sound like this? So vapid and disassociated? So cloying and obvious? Or is it just me? Does there come a point in a Pavement fan's life where it all stops meaning as much (Viz. the O.G. fans who think everything after Slay Tracks was rubbish)? Mirror Traffic is better than the last two albums but he hit a peak with Pig Lib - the last thing he did that avoided gauche refrains, like that senator one.

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baconfat
Aug 30, 2011 9:26pm

hey alfred - did you download the japanese edition of "mirror traffic,' because my CD copy only has 15 songs on it. also: the album title is "Face The Truth," no "To". also: Malkmus' quiet phase brought forth with "Flux=Rad," "Half A Canyon," and b-sides like "False Skorpion"? Really?

Also: he could've said no, but Malkmus didn't really "hire" Beck; Mr. Hansen offered his services and access to a real L.A. studio. I'm sure Beck got paid but I don't think SM was actively seeking a producer for the record, unless he's been lying in his interviews.

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John Blonde
Aug 30, 2011 9:56pm

The album is boring but has a couple of brief interesting moments. It mostly sounds like Malkmus finds his own music uncompelling.

Beck's production of Thurston Moore's album from earlier this summer is great.

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roroooo
Aug 30, 2011 11:56pm

the only reason Pavement had any success was that a few of their songs sounded like they could have been on this album and old stevie is a dash charming fellow. you sir are a cloth-eared buffoon

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Graham
Aug 31, 2011 8:46am

It seems a shame to criticise an artist for being too much like themselves when they are as singular as Malkmus, and adept at tight, amusing and beautiful albums such as this. But for every happy punter, there will always be one pining for mid-90s b sides, seemingly until the end of time.

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Corcoran
Aug 31, 2011 8:51am

Dear Sir,
I am sincerely dissatisfied with your review.
Real Emotional Trash. Yep
Truly,
Now

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gryffe
Aug 31, 2011 10:09am

Hey Albert, cut SM a break. He's arrested a creative decline by releasing his best solo album. If only your writing was the same standard as you used to show on Quietusthen this review might have more gravitas, but I counted three mistakes in this review, 2 highlighted by Baconfat above, and thirdly the lyrics you quoted from Senator are wrong. To paraphrase I guess this review is just " Dense and unprofessional".

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Dan
Aug 31, 2011 3:25pm

So I went and listened to the record instead of grousing about a review. Total snore. Still think it's unfair to hang an artist on the nail of their previous work, but by any yardstick this is total 4/10 territory.

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Buster
Sep 1, 2011 9:30am

In reply to Dan:

Just a suggestion, before you give a SM album 4/10 after one listen, I always found repeated listens to be extremely rewarding. If I had given an opinion of any of his solo efforts after one listen, I would have been pining later to re-write. Haven't heard the album yet, but am a huge fan of SMs solo stuff so far. Personally, I haven't found any of his efforts with Pavement or solo to be 'weak', which is saying alot seeing he's been putting stuff out since like 1989 or 1990. This reviewer comes off whiny. Like his mother was a hamster...

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Matt
Sep 10, 2011 8:09am

I really enjoyed this review. Who gives a shit where the judgement falls, it's good writing.

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Nov 17, 2011 8:15pm

The writing of this review sounds like the author is competing with Stephen Malkmus for neat, clever and snarky/smarty clever-ish wording....doesn't really tell me about the album. Tells me that this guy has a great vocab. 'Lovebuzzed' is my favorite. Also, it's not Pavement. That's the deal.

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