The new record by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Sparkle Hard, out Friday on Matador, is yet another notch in the former Pavement front-man's belt. Alternately playful and precise, the album sees the indie hero entirely at ease as a performer, maybe more than he's been in the nearly 2 decades since his other band called it a day.
Now, it goes without saying that despite having had a longer career post-Pavement than he had with them, Malkmus efforts are automatically-if-unfairly judged by the yardstick of that other act. And, frankly, there are parts of Sparkle Hard that do favorably compare to Pavement songs, if that sort of thing is important to you. The bouncy "Shiggy" charms on the back of a fuzzy guitar hook, while the lighter "Middle America" sees Malkmus refine the sort of loose twang he first offered up on "Range Life" in the Clinton years. Importantly, Malkmus has not neglected to bring a lot of hooks with him here on Sparkle Hard, and the record has more melodic treasures within its grooves than some, much-earlier Jicks releases had. And yet, even as the slowly-insistent melody of "Solid Silk" segues nicely into the brighter "Bike Lane", the later song, however, very nearly confirms fears that Malkmus is a cynical hipster a-hole.
Now, I say that because "Bike Lane" is about Freddie Gray and one wonders why we should view the rare appearance of a real world concern in a Malkmus song with anything less than skepticism, given the tone of his past compositions. The jaunty tune doesn't help ease our worries here, but let's give Malkmus the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is, like Mark E. Smith before him, juxtaposing the music against the concerns of the lyrics. One can't possibly believe that Malkmus would turn the senseless death of the young man from Baltimore into an indie-pop song, so one must remember that beneath the smart-assedry, Malkmus is still calling our attention as listeners to the tragedy of Gray's demise at the hands of the cops. Elsewhere, a duet with Kim Gordon nudges parts of Sparkle Hard into real Glimmer Twins territory, "Refute" having a decided grime about it that is indeed infectious. For all that's catchy here throughout the record, Sparkle Hard sees Stephen Malkmus indulge himself a bit on the longer cuts here, "Kite" and "Difficulties / Let Them Eat Vowels" re-affirming his real skill as a guitarist, with the riffs coming loose and fiery on both.
Sparkle Hard sounds enough like Pavement classics that long-time fans should be as happy as I am with this record. The album also fits neatly in with the most recent releases from Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks in offering up a pretty good -- superb in spots, really -- showcase for the talents of Malkmus as a singer, composer, and guitarist.
Sparkle Hard by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks will be out on Friday via Matador Records.
[Photo: Leah Nash]