Pavement’s 2010 reunion divided fans between those who felt it was a richly deserved victory lap for one of the finest rock bands of the 1990s and those who feared a perfunctory, punch-the-clock cash-in. Watching Pavement onstage did little to resolve the question — even the band seemed unsure of as to its intentions.
In a way, this all fit perfectly. During his now 20-year run as one of America’s best songwriters, Pavement’s creative engine, Stephen Malkmus, has conducted his career in a state of self-referential bemusement and above-the-fray remove, mining professional and emotional ambivalence to remarkable effect. Equally capable of filling his records with thrilling pop gems, wrenching ballads and self-indulgent silliness, he can be a frustrating enigma. When Malkmus appears dialed in, he is the equal to any writer in the idiom. When his focus drifts, he is a fascinating study in how a transcendent talent can make hugely tedious music.
Aided by producer Beck Hansen, “Mirror Traffic” — Malkmus’s fifth solo record — finds the artist at his most energized and engaged. The front half hosts two of Malkmus’s strongest straight rockers in years. The pull-no-punches “Senator” wryly addresses both the carnal and policy failings of an unnamed civil servant with full frontal vitriol. Meanwhile, the ebullient “Stick Figures in Love” spins an infectious riff over dazed, stream-of-consciousness couplets. The galloping “Forever 28” juxtaposes great hooks with one of Malkmus’s saddest meditations: “I can see the mystery of you and me will never quite add up.” On “Mirror Traffic,” Malkmus has created a knotty and personal work, replete with the characteristic mix of humor, hooks and offbeat confessionalism that informs his best efforts.
— Elizabeth Nelson
Recommended tracks: “Senator,” “Stick Figures in Love,”
“The R.E.D. Album”
Is Game angry or insecure? That’s the question to consider after listening to the long-delayed (and just plain long) “The R.E.D. Album.” The L.A. gangsta rapper has always had an over-the-top mean streak, and he growls verses with even more fire than usual on his fourth album, and first since 2008’s “LAX.” The rap landscape shifted considerably in those few years, particularly on Game’s West Coast. Bizarre, swagged-out young acts such as Odd Future and Lil B have crawled up through the cracks and gangsta is no longer the genre’s dominant style. Even Dr. Dre’s newest disciple, Kendrick Lamar, is more thoughtful than thug. Lamar makes an appearance here, upstaging Game on “The City,” which sets a trend for the album.
“The R.E.D. Album” is overstuffed with high-wattage cameos. Lil Wayne, Drake, Rick Ross, Snoop Dogg and Big Boi would make up the starting lineup, but the bench offers almost as much firepower. Game surrounds himself with these stars, regularly gets out-rapped by them and proceeds to thrust his chest out and proclaim his superiority. It’s a clumsy exercise in straining for relevance, playing the underdog and misplaced machismo. “Spit like I’m the ghost of ’em / Name your top 10 I’m harder than the most of ’em,” he barks a few minutes into the album, referencing Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, just before placing himself next to Jay-Z and Nas as an all-time top-five rapper.
That’s a laughable claim, but at least give Game credit for buying into his own hype. He raps with an all-out relentlessness and simply wills many tracks to success. “Ricky” and “Born in the Trap” have no guest spots, but Game as gangland storyteller is enough to make them album highlights. Next time, he should spend more time reminding listeners who he is, as opposed to who he’s not.
— David Malitz
Recommended tracks: “Ricky,” “Born in the Trap”
Sun Araw is the appropriately intergalactic moniker of Cameron Stallones, who has become one of the leading figures of underground hypnagogic-pop, a surprisingly robust scene of experimentalists who create heady, entrancing psychedelia laced with soothing New Age stillness. “Ancient Romans” is the fifth album of a prolific five-year run and serves as an ideal portal into Sun Araw’s spacey and spacious universe.
Songs are like puddles that form slowly, drip by syrupy drip. The 80-minute album contains just eight tracks, which means the gurgling keyboards, squawking guitars and echo-pounded vocal chants are given plenty of time to congeal and coalesce. The pace may seem glacial, but the songs on “Ancient Romans” feel like creations born out of a humid jungle, perhaps because some of those special effects sound like insects buzzing or birds chirping.
As lengthy as the songs are, they never lose focus. Quite the opposite — instead of veering in different directions, they crawl along in slightly squiggly but mostly straight lines, becoming more hypnotic as new sounds ooze into the primordial soup. “Crete” begins with a simple tick-tocking rhythm that remains throughout but eventually cedes the spotlight to lumpy organ drones, clattering percussion and other various kaleidoscopic globs. “Crown Shell” employs a similar slow build, with each new element taking the listener one step closer to heightened consciousness.
On the 15-minute-plus album closer, “Impluvium,” Sun Araw’s African influences are at their most apparent, with fewer psychedelic bursts and more attention to rhythmic propulsion. After an hour of music that makes you want to sink deeper and deeper into your chair, “Impluvium” inspires you to get out of it.
— David Malitz
Recommended tracks: “Crete,” “Crown Shell,” “Impluvium”