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Stephen Malkmus spoke of his admiration for sports in a recent interview—namely, how a team can today enter a so-called “rebuilding mode” and get a free pass from fans for stinking for a couple of years. He lamented there’s no such equivalent in the arts: Musicians can’t just tell admirers to stick out some growing pains. But he needn’t worry. Such in-between days are primarily behind him. Pavement could be brilliant, but also pretentiously oblique and needlessly awkward, as if afraid to fully embrace its knack for a hook. With the Jicks, Malkmus appears more assertive and confident.
The songs of Sparkle Hard feel like miniature vignettes—some character sketches, and some scenes of modern life, but all viewed with Malkmus’ cynicism, which only gets more to the point with age. “Bike Lane,” for instance, nods to America’s still-prevalent difficulties with race relations. Here, the lush bicycle paths function as simply another means to wrongly chase down a person of color. Given a rather ferocious and direct guitar lick, consider the track a protest anthem. “Refute,” which briefly provides the album with a jangly country detour, sees Malkmus trading vocals with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth fame on a tale in which old regrets and a lesbian affair disrupt an already dead coupling.
“Middle America” possesses a more ramshackle pop feel, but its impression of a country is a still broken one, where a “hue of Robitussin” doubles as a complimentary phrase and men are scum. “Shiggy” ups the acceleration and the anger, with upper-register guitars sounding an alarm as Malkmus shouts to be sent back to the underground. Still, hints of goofiness abound, whether courtesy of the Auto-Tune vocals gracing the garage-rock rhythmic bursts on “Rattler” or 60s-inspired keyboards of “Solid Silk,” a song that characterizes American discourse as “slug eat slug” and the poor as those who will never “see the butter-side of his daily bread.”
Like many a news-show pundit in 2018, Malkmus knows words are often mightier than a sword. But he also understands that, when paired with incisive rock-pop recorded with a deceiving professionalism that nonetheless retains a laissez-faire lo-fi looseness in analog, they’re far more fun.
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