Release Date: May 18, 2018
Record label: Matador
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Sparkle Hard comes into focus slowly and stately, coalescing around crawling piano chords that soon get blown to bits by guitars -- thereby offering a neat encapsulation of how this, the seventh album Stephen Malkmus has made since disbanding Pavement in 1999, walks a fine line between the familiar and the unexpected. Upon the first spin, Sparkle Hard seems to veer all over the place, bouncing from the finely etched pop of "Future Suite" to the Teutonic jam of "Bike Lane," eventually winding up on the country-rock ramble of "Refute," a duet with Kim Gordon, who has never before been heard with anything resembling a twang (and likely never will again). The diversity dazzles, particularly as it's filled with elegant new accents to make familiar settings seem fresh, even when they're firmly within Malkmus' laconic wheelhouse; witness his pitch-shifted vocals on "Rattler," which give the song's robotic rhythms a woozy sway, or how the pastoral beginnings of "Kite" get blown out with psychedelic wah-wahs and rushed rhythms.
Let's take a moment to appreciate the press push behind Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks' new album Sparkle Hard. The publicists working the band's seventh album have done a bang-up job: Malkmus has been everywhere in recent weeks, from The New York Times to Stereogum to GQ Magazine, which called him "the Dad of Indie Rock". (Oh, here's Paste's feature story, too.) It's interesting that this is happening now, because Jicks albums have never really felt like big events, and some are patchier than others.
Cool. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks' new record, Sparkle Hard, is all of that and so much more. The last couple of Jicks records - Mirror Traffic and Wig Out at Jagbags - were both minor masterpieces that came close to equalling the work Malkmus had previously done with his other band. Wig Out was particularly impressive thanks to its rhythmic dynamism ("Lariat" in particular) and increasingly focused songwriting.
Whether in the game-changing, intelligently-skewed slackerism of Pavement or in his slightly more melodically fleshed-out work with the Jicks, Stephen Malkmus has spent the last 25 years making the weird and esoteric strangely accessible. On ‘Sparkle Hard’ he doesn’t reinvent his own wheel but keeps it turning over with a seemingly never-ending well of ideas. ‘Bike Lane’ lands on the more abrasive end of the spectrum, a brilliantly dirgy riff underpinning lyrics about the death of police-murdered Freddie Gray; ‘Kite’ is a squelching, nearly-seven minute jam; ‘Solid Silk’ is a hazy, Real Estate-y caress interspersed with wistful strings.
Though Pavement's sound and soul have been inextricably linked to the '90s, Stephen Malkmus' solo career feels unmoored to any era. Removed from the zeitgeist and any real commercial expectations, Malkmus has settled into a comfortable routine of indulging whims, exploring rabbit holes, and generally making music just far enough removed from Pavement's buzzy aloofness that nobody could accuse him of chasing past glories. Give or take a Real Emotional Trash, the approach has flattered him.
Back for a seventh time with his post-Pavement outfit The Jicks, Stephen Malkmus sounds like he's having a blast. The overriding tone of this collection of songs is one of warmth. It's there in the vocals in the affable, conversational style of the beginning of opener 'Cast Off' and the sweet delivery of 'Middle America', in the mellow stabs of duelling guitar in 'Future Suite', and in the gentle acoustic sing-song tune of 'Solid Silk'.
To download, click "Share" and right-click the download icon | iTunes | Google Play | Stitcher | RSS The Lowdown: Arriving after the longest layoff of his career, Stephen Malkmus' seventh album with the Jicks skips the indulgent prog excursions of 2008’s Real Emotional Trash and the gentle backward-looking holding patterns of 2014’s Wigout at Jagbags in favor of a compact collection of well-crafted rockers that blend Malkmus’ wry voice with our insane modern moment. The Good: Inspired by the 2015 police brutality death of Baltimore’s Freddy Gray, “Bike Lane” is one of the most pointedly political songs of Malkmus’ catalog and also a bona fide rocker. That designation also extends to “Shiggy”, which is fuzzy and shambling enough to mistake for a Crooked Rain B-side.
Malkmus' continued exploration of guitar-rock, psychedelia, funk, and progressive/classic rock is an inspiration to any artist wondering what post-fame can bring to their artistic resume. Living up to icon status is never easy in the musical world, especially when that ship sailed in the 1990s and you're over fifty years of age. Maybe that's why Stephen Malkmus, the former front man of Pavement, has been content writing modest, guitar-driven indie rock for the better part of two decades…I mean why chase even more fame, especially if that's not the lifestyle you want？Indulging his more subdued-yet-experimental whims has resulted in a couple of outstanding projects with the Jicks, namely 2001's self-titled album and 2011's Mirror Traffic.
The greatest story in Nineties indie-rock was watching Pavement grow from boutique noise aesthetes into one of America's truly fine bands. In the 19 years since they closed up shop, it's been equally fun seeing frontman Stephen Malkmus relax into an excellent solo career marked by a warmth, humor and generosity, growing past his early days as the "ironic" "Prince of Slack." Over the course of seven albums, he's stretched out as a guitarist and opened up as a songwriter, sometimes even gesturing towards a kind of tastefully opaque midlife realism. He's a pretty approachable character these days: the imperiously cool indie-rock icon you could watch a Portland Trail Blazers game with.
Stephen Malkmus's seventh album, Sparkle Hard, makes overtures toward a level of tonal maturity not often heard from the former Pavement frontman, whose cavalier wordplay and lackadaisical Cali accent still sometimes make him sound like an overgrown teenager, even at 51. Malkmus has been prone to juxtaposing tasteful pop songs with classic-rock elements and offbeat lyrics since Slanted and Enchanted, and the audible delight he still takes in such musical mischief is apparent throughout Sparkle Hard. This is obvious right from the get-go with “Cast Off,” the first instance of Malkmus opening an album with a tender-sounding ballad since Wowee Zowee's “We Dance.
Photo by Giovanni Duca Regardless of what band he's been with (and he's been with the Jicks more than twice as long as Pavement was together), Stephen Malkmus has been astonishingly consistent. His guitar-driven indie-rock has seldom faltered, even as he's explored various moods and approaches. On Sparkle Hard, Malkmus and the Jicks run through as many styles as they ever have — there's even Auto-Tune! — but they keep it bright and optimistic, the album's title turning into an instruction.
This is the seventh Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks record, as has been noted by many reviewers. "Wow, that's more than Pavement", they say. But 'Sparkle Hard' differs as it sees Malkmus renounce (slightly) that smirking posture of indifference which we've grown to love him for on an album that immediately seems more effervescent and engaged than previous efforts.