Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Mirror Traffic

In an attempt to interview Stephen Malkmus upon the release of Mirror Traffic, it was apparent an interrogation wouldn’t happen. Instead, the reply was, “Would you like to speak with one of the Jicks?” Of course any critic, or for that matter, card carrying Pavement obsessive, would be insulted by such a snub. No offense to the Jicks, but Mirror Traffic is Malkmus’ show, his creation and memoir. There’s little evidence that the Jicks are anything other than background players. So I suppose the next best thing to picking Malkmus’ brain is to assess Mirror Traffic as an armchair psychologist.

Malkmus’ solo career has now eclipsed that of his time in Pavement holds, and that difference resonates on Mirror Traffic. A decade in, Malkmus has established himself as the post-slacker, soccer dad, bent on obscure folk records, incessant noodling and great American novel aspirations. But given his reluctance to reuniting Pavement, he also knows what the public really wants from him: the absurdist psychedelic indie pop he’s hung as his albatross. The album tows the line brilliantly between the two, with songs that meld the duality of Malkmus’ existence—hence the title. Think of Mirror Traffic as Wowee Zowee for the aging hipster. All of the man’s idiosyncrasies are on display. From the woozy country leanings of “Long Hard Book,” to the pseudo-punk goof of “Spazz,” Mirror Traffic feels extremely loose and, at times, unfinished. But it’s those charming cliffhangers that define Malkmus’ songwriting strengths.

It’s telling that a record with as much character as Mirror Traffic would also be Malkmus’ most autobiographical. Though his apathy leaks through in the semi-protest song “Senator” and on his lovely fuck-off to the digital generation, “Asking Price,” he’s mostly questioning his relevance. There’s the refrain of “there’s not much left inside my tank today” on the Steely Dan lounge act of “Brain Gallop” and the line, “I’m too old to play capture the flag,” on “Spazz.” But as much as Malkmus’ enthusiasm for indie rock may be dulled, it doesn’t show in the music. Of course, one of the headlines attached to Mirror Traffic is that Beck produced it, but such star treatment just gives Malkmus room to stretch his legs and make crystalline moments, which are then given added grandeur, on what amounts to probably Malkmus’ most accomplished record post-Pavement. He may be over the reunion circuit for now (that is until one of his daughters needs college tuition), but Mirror Traffic proves he can borrow the nostalgia of his past, however slightly, in order to accent what he’s doing in the present.
Kevin J. Elliott

MP3: “Tigers”

Still Living

As much as the Ganglians’ were to be admired for the jangled sounds found on their sophomore album, 2009’s Monster Head Room, I think it’s safe to say that the Sacramento band has eclipsed that record’s (now) seemingly primitive stylings with their follow-up. On Still Living, the Ganglians have fully blossomed, displaying the entire scope of the sonic colorscape they now hold in their grasp. It’s hard to imagine another record in possession of equal amounts wonder and pop smarts, or another band with the same degree of wherewithal for using such attributes.

Still Living begins innocently enough with “Call Me,” an effervescent paean to melancholy. But even here, specifically in the five-minute song’s second half, the band gives vague nods to Beach Boyish harmonies, revealing a bit of their own pet sounds in the process. “That’s What I Want,” which follows, shows some commonality with the band’s peers (Beach Fossils, Surfer Blood, etc.), but the song’s patient pace and contrasting mix of tones are indicative of a greater sense of purpose.

It is that thoughtful resolve that gives the record its gravitas, albeit belied by a radiant veneer. And at a nearly hour long, this certainly isn’t another one of those tossed off “digital EPs” that’s all too common these days. As such, the album is allowed to progress naturally, with tracks like “Sleep” and “Things to Know” exploring deeper grooves and textures not immediately obvious, while elsewhere (“Jungle,” “Faster”) the Ganglians allow themselves to let loose. But even the band’s ode to atrophy, “Good Times” seems particularly astute with lines like, “Can’t find a job. What’s the use of trying at all?” Still Living is a record for the times, however fucked-up they may be.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Drop the Act”

Hercules & Love Affair
Blue Songs
Moshi Moshi

Back in 2008, Hercules & Love Affair caught the world off guard with their self-titled disco revival. Anchored by the otherworldly vocals of Antony Hegarty (of Antony & The Johnsons fame), Hercules & Love Affair delivered an elegantly decayed version of disco that was as far from Saturday Night Fever as Tang is to orange juice. Now H&LA are back with the follow-up, Blue Songs. (Curiously, the record came out overseas in January, but is just now making its American debut, though with three extra songs and a bonus disc of remixes.)

Anyone expecting a continuation of the group’s debut is in for a major surprise. H&LA leader Andy Butler has dismantled the original crew, with the exception of touring vocalists Kim Ann Foxman and Aerea Negrot, and turned his sights toward the realm of house. In an odd way, it makes sense that Butler is slowly progressing through the decades. In the same way that disco records were unfairly maligned, the early days of house music could also use some re-examination.

While Blue Songs isn’t necessarily a nostalgia trip, it also doesn’t really present a new version of house. It’s a tricky balance that Butler largely manages with ease. And with the addition of Shaun Wright in the Hegarty role, he has an equally strong foil. The main difference is that while Hegarty seemed to pull the material in an emotional direction, Wright is mainly a solid rock vocalist. So while there isn’t a “Blind”, there are still songs like “My House,” an absurdly catchy slice of jacking house.

Where the record falls short is in the inclusion of downtempo songs that kill the momentum. Two of those songs, “Boy Blue” and “Blue Song,” are smack dab in the middle of the record, with former sounding like a rejected track from the first Faithless album. H&LA’s cover of Sterling Void’s “It’s Alright” is a real bummer, and besides, the Pet Shop Boys did it better. But the bonus songs help and the new closer, an inspired take on The XX’s “Shelter,” helps rebalance the record. While Blue Songs isn’t as essential as it’s predecessor, it’s still an excellent collection of pumping tunes.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “Painted Eyes”

Active Child
You Are All I See

I’ve heard Active Child described as “squiggly R&B.” It’s not the most flattering description, but it suits Pat Grossi’s Active Child, which began as a fairly run-of-the-mill bedroom-pop runoff, but has evolved now that Grossi is singing with authority, austerity, grace and weight—you know, kind of what you’d expect from an R&B singer. The squiggles? Well, that’s just his in-house production style.

It seems strange that Grossi is venturing into soul right now, considering the recent rash of silky pop evocative of the mid-90s. But I wouldn’t call him a copycat; his aesthetic is too strong. The Weeknd has a similar creamy mix-filling swirl; Frank Ocean has his blackness; and How To Dress Well mires in husky, beleaguered lo-fi. But Active Child favors a much more expansive sound. Massive, vacant spaces between his deft vocals and cavernous drums, with occasional stabs of angelic synths and textured strings—iit all transforms Active Childe into something of an avatar, Grossi’s croon elevated far higher than any other auteur in this so-called revival. That doesn’t necessarily make him the best in his chosen field; like most records of sole-ownership, You Are All I See becomes tiring, a little monochromatic, and for all of the beauty of Grossi’s creation, people like Ocean have certainly established stronger characters for themselves. But still, for what it’s worth, it’s hard not to be impressed and harder still to be unexcited for the future.
Luke Winkie

Chelsea Wolfe

Let’s not split hairs here: gothic music is, at its center, a goofy genre. For the most part (and understand that I’m generalizing here), it is created by white kids fascinated by death and dressing up as a zombified Al Jolson. As someone who has grown out of his depressed teenage years, it’s hard to see how these musicians and songwriters can be so fascinated with what are essentially juvenile themes involving a bastardized understanding of the dark arts.

This is why Chelsea Wolfe’s second full length album Apokalypsis is such a revelation. In fact, her album title is Greek for revelation, and though she falls victim to many of the same fashion failures as her counterparts, her music breaks the norm of minor chords and thematic sadness. Each song floats into a minimalist space where Ms. Wolfe’s beautiful voice acts as a spoke in a lo-fidelity wheel, giving up complete lyrical understanding for a dark and hissing composition of the whole. Songs like “Mer” and “Movie Screen” act as bookends for a soundtrack for melancholy suffering, the sporadic guitars and almost tribal percussion leading the listener into a tearful lull.

If the recorded tracks aren’t enough, there’s another completely new layer when these songs are performed live, which should become an immediate must-see on any music lover’s agenda. This would allow one to both hear these tracks in a surround-sound light and also witness the strange beauty that is Chelsea Wolfe, who, coupled with her voice, creates the kind of inapproachability that emo teenagers so desperately crave. Overall, Wolfe transcends her genre and reminds one that even old dogs can learn new tricks.
Terrence Adams