More renowned for rising to fame amid the alt-rock 90s with his band Pavement, Stephen Malkmus has been leading the Jicks far longer. A relatively easy case could be made that his output with the Jicks is even more consistent in spite of lacking the charmingly tossed-off feel of much of his prior group’s best work. Yet Malkmus’ dorky intellectualism remains, and if the Jicks feel more refined, they still move to his eccentric whims—all well-versed in rock history. This is college rock informed as much by the tangents of the Grateful Dead as the snappy guitar pop of the Verlaines.
Here, and on 2014’s Wig Out at Jagbags, Malkmus and the Jicks largely emphasize trimming the fat. There’s weirdness—see the juicy keyboards of a “Rattler”—but the band keeps things tight and focused. And there’s also room to go deep, as Malkmus’ lyrics increasingly (and simply) hint at grander topics, ala the heartbreak of the disintegrating marriage heard on “Refute.” The jaggedness lends the album an urban feel, so throw on some headphones and go for a bike ride around the city.
With Malkmus’ evocative and pointed lyrics, Sparkle Hard would probably be better suited to soundtrack a graphic novel than a film. When he drops a line such as “be successful in all your lies,” the realistically grotesque drawings of a Daniel Clowes come to mind. But good news: Clowes books routinely get turned into films. If last year’s Wilsonwas a disappointment, the movie’s titular anti-hero, a weirdly neurotic Woody Harrelson, still proved a joy to watch. Perhaps the songs of Malkmus and Jicks could have given it a bit more punch.
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.
Last chance to change your mind...