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Album Reviews, Music

Album Review: Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – “Sparkle Hard”

By: Sasha Lindsay –




Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks - "Sparkle Hard"

After a four-year wait, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks’ new album, Sparkle Hard will be released on May 18th via Matador. And here’s an added bonus – a ten minute short-film, Sparkle Hard: The Movie (available now), which features a behind the scenes look into Malkmus’ creative process in Portland, Oregon offering fresh perspective to the music. In this film, a frank Malkmus states, “I write songs all the time but I am beyond just getting through stuff or putting stuff out because of some sort of compulsion of creativity. I just try to make it interesting for myself. It has to have a reason.” And this new album glimmers with reason.

Half a minute in with cheerful piano playing, we hear Malkmus’ almost slowed down voice cut through the riff. In “Cast Off”, Malkmus demands patience, as he lets the song build. Then the introduction of guitar and percussion come in with a slightly accelerated pace, until emotion resonates from his voice. Choosing not to lead with the already released, “Middle America”, the result is bold and refreshing.

This is followed by mellow, twangy songs will the swell of brooding guitar riffs. Then there is the country tinged, fairy-disco feel of “Solid Silk”, conjuring up images of pastoral scenes. Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” comes to mind, especially with lyrics such as “kissing under prairie moon”. And there is no denying this song is meant to highlight a buoyant, rhapsodic feel.

“Middle America” boasts a catchy melody. In his acoustic version, we see him alone with his guitar, surrounded by greenery; his folksy, candid delivery, nonchalant at times. Here, we hear the same liveliness and energy. He is contemplative and aware of getting older, “I will not disappear/Time gets to me and I/Wonder how to simplify”. There is social awareness, possibly alluding to present day women’s rights issues, with lyrics, “Men are scum, I won’t deny” (he is father to two young daughters after all). He also references Freddie Gray in the previous track, “Bike Lane”. One cannot help but wonder whether Malkmus is opening a forum for listeners outside of his demographic or simply sharing his views about highly important issues? Either way, for an artist like Malkmus, candidness is common.

In “Rattler”, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band influences are heard. I find myself listening to this track on an amplified level. There is experimentation, vocal distortion and a deviation from his usual go-to laidback groove. I feel like time is moving on a different plane. And this trippy song contrasts remarkably well against the other ones with a constant heartbeat of percussion echoing in the background. He chooses here to really sparkle hard. “Rattler” almost seems as if it can depart from the album and take up new territory all its own in a futuristic setting, robots included (surprisingly, it’s almost reminiscent of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak because of Auto-Tune).

In “Brethren”, he veers towards snarky, singing, “Though you know it could all fall apart in an instant come crashing down”, which alludes to the shifts in momentum musically coupled with vocal distortion. There are boisterous and meandering tunes but with the duet, “Refute”, saturated with a honky-tonk vibe, the album dips. Kim Gordon’s (of Sonic Youth fame) rasp does not blend well with Malkmus’ efforts and musical arrangement. But Malkmus delivers lyrics with quiet emotion such as, “the world was telling him love is dead”. Is this a jaded Malkmus? The song does seem a bit campy and possibly not meant to be taken too seriously but nonetheless the strong country arrangement stands out.

Overall, Malkmus is confident and remains organic. He knows what his sound is. The album is cohesive, with songs merging with the next. This is a continuation of his repertoire, albeit more mature and smooth with some new frills. There are elements from the iconic indie-rock band, Pavement (Malkmus’ previous band). The fan base will surely be satisfied and not surprisingly, the band already has a sold out show at Lee’s Palace in Toronto.

Recommended Tracks: “Cast Off”, “Rattler”, and “Solid Silk”.


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