Published May 17, 2018When Matador Records introduced Sparkle Hard to the world in February, they debuted the single "Middle America," a jangly, laidback, wordy pop concoction that casually presented itself as one of Stephen Malkmus' greatest songs.
And yet, by his own accounts in the press, Malkmus, who is approaching his 30th year as a public performer, is still figuring himself out. His old band Pavement formed in Stockton, CA in 1989 and indelibly altered indie rock over a remarkable ten-year run. He has now been fronting the Jicks from their home base in Portland, OR, for twice as long as he ever did Pavement and Sparkle Hard, their seventh album, finds him as curious, witty and spirited as ever.
While the record is rather Jicks-ian in its approach to infectiously fascinating, off-kilter rock'n'roll, there are also some deep stretches into unknown territory. There's articulated political outrage about police unjustly murdering African-Americans and how all of that might relate to bougie entitlement ("Bike Lane"); perspectives on technological destruction and empowerment (the Auto-Tune assisted "Rattler"); and a Silver Jews-style country duet about the end of the institution of marriage featuring Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon ("Refute"). Whatever the case, Malkmus, a creative, mischievous fellow, is enjoying himself. Sort of.
There's obviously conflict within his latest songs about all of this modernity and its impact on how we process good, old-fashioned information. It's bad enough that the news is dispiritingly horrible; do we have to be media illiterate too? And, as "content creators," he ponders his band's state in all of this too — whether they can write songs that hold people's attention for long enough to matter.
His resolve to address the latter led to actually applying more quality control to the songs on Sparkle Hard. Instead of recording the Jicks soon after leaving their practice space with fresh songs, as was their tradition, he engaged in a more rigorous demo process and vetted the songs before entering a studio and finally capturing them with producer Chris Funk of the Decemberists.
The end result is likely the most dynamic and entertaining Jicks record thus far. You can hear Malkmus's love of classic and kraut rock in these crafty arrangements, which each get to a place where they truly shine. Hard. (Matador)