The fact that Stephen Malkmus has remained relevant than his 90’s contemporaries is pretty unbelievable. You would think an indie musician of such prominence and considered by some to be the Lou Reed of the 90’s, would eventually become irrelevant decades later. However, Malkmus has always been progressive with his music and has been active via social media, where he’ll occasionally tweet about sports and politics. Even though, there has been some cringeworthy dad-moments (to a good cause), and he enjoys fantasy sports as much as any average white guy, Malkmus has never had a crash in his career. In fact, over seventeen years adding to his reputation of six exceptionally consistent Jicks albums and potential Pavement reunion trolling, Malkmus along with his jerks and dicks, have never sounded more fresh than they do on Sparkle Hard.
Malkmus has always wanted to keep Pavement in the 90’s. And since Malkmus can’t give us an answer on a potential Pavement reunion for their 30th anniversary in 2019, he can at least deliver his best post-Pavement album. S.M. & the Jicks (Mike Clark, keyboards, Joanna Bolme, bass, and Jake Morris, drums) are abruptly at the top of their game and why let something from the past get in the way of it. Besides, this is the Jicks album Pavement fans have been waiting for.
Like Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger,” the opener of Pavement’s last studio album, Terror Twilight (1999), “Cast Off” shows Malkmus at his most vulnerable, as you pity his gloomy vocals. In contrast, “Future Suite” is more upbeat, as it includes a leaping rhythm with choppy guitars, which could’ve fit nicely on Mirror Traffic (2011). The track is reminiscent of the War on the Drugs, hence it’s Americana guitar solo near the end. At the end, over a spiraling guitar (see what I did there?), a steady beat, and some overdubbed vocals, Malkmus sings, “Before my dime, we’ll see / everybody knows that he’s coming out the execution tree” – which is just as ambiguous as any Malkmus lyric. “Solid Silk” features an enormous string section, which upstages Malkmus’ vocals and keeps the track in its place. Malkmus delivers a hard hitting track in lo-fi, a nod to his old musical style, on “Bike Lane.” It deals with the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year old African American who died while in police custody in 2015 (“the cops that killed Freddie / sweet young Freddie Gray / got behind him with the truncheons and choked the life right out of him”). Next to “Embassy Row,” it’s one of Malkmus’ most politically charged songs. It also sounds like it could’ve been from one of the early Pavement EPs, with it’s distorted krautrock rhythm. “Middle America” signals the #MeToo movement, as it includes lyrics like “Men are scum, I won’t deny / may you be shit-faced the day you die.” As the lead single, it’s one of most Pavement-esque tracks on the album, which is a good marketing trick from the label. The opening riff is reminiscent of the classic, “Range Life” and the melody is a mash of “Zurich is Stained” and “Newark Wilder.” And when Malkmus sings: ““The heir apparent just might try / you know you should be winning” it sounds like a tribute to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” It’s acoustically warm, but you can hear Malkmus’ forceful vocals, as the song becomes intensely deeper in the end.
Throughout the album, you know Malkmus is going to experiment, given his recent acoustic set for Pitchfork. According to a recent Washington Post interview, Malkmus discussed how his label, Matador Records, prevented him from going deeper into experimentation by playing keyboards and using drum machines over some of the tracks, in favor of a more “on-brand Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks record.” It’s ironic when an independent label denies access for a musician that helped popularized that label, for more bands to sign, with one of the greatest debut albums of all time. Who knows, we could’ve had a whole album of “Robyn Turns 26.” Nevertheless, Malkmus’ experimental side showed up on “Rattler.” Here, Malkmus uses auto-tune and synthesizers over thunderous Wowee Zowee drums. The fuzzy “Shiggy” sounds like an unreleased track from Crooked Rain Crooked Rain (1994), as it echoes “Elevate Me Later.” The album reaches it’s peak with the Silkworm-inspired “Kite.” With an acoustic introduction, the song later grooves into a jam featuring a Mellotron and dueling solos. During the transition, you can hear bits of Pavement tracks such as “Half a Canyon” and this performance of “Folk Jam.” There’s a lot going on here, such as one of the best vocal approaches ever from Malkmus and harmonized and falsetto “doo doo doo” backing vocals before the serpentine psychedelia guitar solo. You can hear Malkmus’ forceful guitar playing, as he is letting out his inner-Eddie Van Halen (yeah, he’s that good), but eventually, slows things down with the Mellotron fading out. “Brethren” starts out like something the Who would’ve released on The Who Sell Out (1967). Later, Malkmus flirts with some vocal effects again, sounding like a vocoder version of Julian Casablancas. With being discordant, this would’ve fit perfectly on Pavement’s assorted 1995 album, Wowee Zowee. “Refute” is a lovely hipster-imagined twangy duet, featuring Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth. As Malkmus fiddles about marriage and infidelity, the lyrics seem fitting for Gordon, given her 2011 divorce from former husband and Sonic Youth bandmate, Thurston Moore. During the bridge, when Gordon sings “Marry on, children / but be aware, the world doesn’t want you anymore” she sounds like a goddess, who seems remindful with the message. The album closes with the unwieldy “Difficulties – Let Them Eat Vowels.” “Difficulties” sounds like something from the self-titled debut, with its drifting instrumentation. Sliding to the funky “Let The Eat Vowels,” it sounds like Malkmus was listening to a lot of Clor during the recording of this song and his old track, “Sheets.” There is also a swirling melody, which sounds like the Kinks’ “Monica,” but sadly, Malkmus doesn’t seem like a guy who would be into the Kinks. It ends in a twisting and chaotic jam, where Malkmus attempts his best Zappa impression.
As Malkmus releases a record, showcasing a style he helped pioneer, nevertheless, there’s a lot he has yet to unleash. Given the experimentation on a few tracks, there’s definitely an electronic album Malkmus is dying to release. Let’s just hope in the near future, Matador will let him release it. Let’s also dream for Matador to finally release Terror Twilight: Farewell Horizontal edition, like they were supposed to nine years ago. For the time being, the best S.M. & the Jicks album will do.
Favorite tracks: “Bike Lane,” “Middle America,” “Rattler,” “Shiggy,” “Kite,” “Difficulties – Let Them Eat Vowels”
Least favorite tracks: “Brethren”
You can listen to Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks’ Sparkle Hard here.