The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

REVIEW: Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks – ‘Sparkle Hard’ (Domino)

  • 8/10
    - 8/10


Now in his fifties, Stephen Malkmus’s appetite for casually experimenting with his mellifluous indie-rock sound is only getting more voracious, as ‘Sparkle Hard’ demonstrates.

As American indie’s keenest Anglophile, former Pavement lead singer and songwriter Stephen Malkmus has long been an expert at forging disparate strands of underground music and keeping it in his own, idiosyncratic milieu. He’s now made more albums with The Jicks, often lazily considered to be some kind of side-project or indulgence, than he ever did with his first band. Working with the Jicks has allowed Malkmus to indulge himself for most of the last 15 years, but always within a disciplined structure, not chasing after past glories but simultaneously maintaining his unmistakable brand of skewed but loquacious indie.

Sparkle Hard, their seventh effort, is reliably within the Malkmus wheelhouse. All the tracks seem instantly familiar to any fan, but remain alluring and refreshing by being unshackled from musical convention and by any commercial expectations beyond that of Malkmus’s existing fanbase. It’s a wild and enjoyable tangle of jerky English post-punk rhythms, spindly Television-esque guitar work, Californian neo-psychedelia and wasted country rock.

Normally apolitical, Malkmus seems to be compelled to comment more directly than he’s ever done before at the state of our times, but still does it in a musical context over which he has total control, not bending preconceived ideas of what protest music ‘should’ sound like. On ‘Solid Silk’, he warns “they’ll step on you if you talk too true”, the chilling message contrasting with the luxuriant, orchestrated indie-rock backdrop. The burbling, hard-edged indie of ‘Bike Lane’ tells a story of police brutality, referencing the death of Freddie Gray, contrasting the violence of his end with mundane descriptions of the officers’ actions at the end of the work-day (“kick off your jackboots / it’s time to unwind”).

‘Middle America’ is a piece of Pavement-esque sweetness reminiscent of their 1999 swansong album Terror Twilight, but contains the almost throwaway comment “men are scum, I won’t deny”, while ‘Refute’, an excellent duet with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon – another American indie icon – refers to her very public divorce, and seems serious yet playful at the same time. The onomatopoeic ‘Rattler’ sees his vocal lines manipulated by the same AutoTune effects of modern R&B. Now in his fifties, Malkmus is too old to credibly throw himself into stuff like this fully, but this rather odd moment shows he’s at least prepared to play casually with other styles, up to a certain point.

Elsewhere, there are more familiarly Malkmus-ian moments. The jangly yet oddly syncopated ‘Future Suite’ sounds like an over-caffeinated Real Estate, coming immediately after the moody, low-key opener ‘Cast Off’. Jubilant lead single ‘Shiggy’ is the perfect aesthetic introduction to everything that he and the Jicks are about. Most impressive of all are the two lengthy tracks, the seven-minute ‘Kite’ that evolves from a krautrock/funk thing to a glorious indie squall, and the multi-segmented closer ‘Difficulties / Let Them Eat Vowels’ starts off slow and minimalist but tacks left into something much weirder and more dynamic. Both of these tracks demonstrate, even when they seem like they’re improvising or even just hoofing it, the immense care that Malkmus and his band put into their craft.

Ever since Pavement split up at the end of the Nineties, Malkmus has usually inhabited the outskirts of the mainstream, never cleaving to current trends yet never losing touch entirely. Sparkle Hard is similarly timeless in feel, but for the first time in a long time – and certainly since 2014’s often inscrutable Wig Out At Jagbags – it feels as if Malkmus has offered newcomers an entry point into his unique back catalogue. (8/10) (Ed Biggs)

Listen to Sparkle Hard by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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