Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Sparkle Hard

27 Dec

Ever since the demise of Pavement, Stephen Malkmus has seldom made an effort to keep up with the mainstream narrative. While his eponymous first effort as a solo artist marked a genuine effort to become more accessible to those alienated by Pavement’s lack of polish, his subsequent releases have been unabashedly indulgent.

Malkmus realized his dad rock fantasies by officially bringing the Jicks into the fold. Their first two outputs, the almost-prog opus Pig Lib and the very jammy Real Emotional Trash, upheld the lo-fi aesthetic. However, with the Beck-produced Mirror Traffic and its follow-up, Wig Out the Jagbags, Malkmus and the Jicks renewed their quest for the perfect summer song, striking gold with tracks like “Tigers” and “Houston Hades”.

On Sparkle Hard, Malkmus and the Jicks bundle the prog rock touches and the sing-songy goodness from prior efforts into an almost perfectly crafted album.

Album-opener “Cast Off” begins on an unfamiliar note but quickly descends into a classic Jicks sound. The song then leads off a chain of solid numbers that tip a hat to almost every phase of Malkmus’ illustrious career. “Solid Silk” is a charming strings-backed track in the same vein as “J Smoov” from Wig Out. “Middle America” is a ballad that wouldn’t seem out of place on a late 90s Pavement record.

While Pavement was almost unanimously considered the intellectual’s band, few could decipher Malkmus’ cryptic, often mangled wordplay. On Sparkle Hard, he remains indecipherable, with a few notable exceptions – for example, references to #BlackLivesMatter movement on the chugging “Bike Lane” and the #MeToo movement on “Middle America”.

There are a couple of weak points, though. On the country-tinged “Refute”, Malkmus trades verses with Kim Gordon of the Sonic Youth about the perils of falling in love; the song has promise but doesn’t quite take off. “Rattler” is confused and laced with Autotune; we consider it a rare wrong move on this album.

However, what really brings his songs to life on Sparkle Hard is the production wizardry of Chris Funk. Malkmus has worked with some big-ticket producers in the past but this albumsets a new standard for production value. Sparkle Hard is arguably the best work Malkmus has put out since his post Pavement career. Let the wine analogies pour in.

Best tracks: “Solid Silk”, “Kite”, “Middle America”

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