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

Score: 9/10


* “Life’s like a firework
You’re only lit once
And you must stand and radiate correctly”


Well, how’s ol’ Steve gonna do it this time? What savvy, subtle, nuanced and untapped concoctions will he have in store here to win our hearts and charm us blind all over again? I was hardly holding out for another “The slap is a gift / Because your cheeks have lost their luster” or “Open call for a prison architect / Send me all your prints ASAP / Stack the walls such that I cannot leave (breathe?)”, but going into this one I had a good feeling for some reason, and the opening Cheers-hearkening piano on Sparkle Hard does certainly give you that charmingly agoraphobic feeling.
On first impression, “Cast off” has the aching, andante and almost incomplete-by-way-of -world-weariness aspect of being bogged (like in “Chesley’s Little Wrists” [1]) of “Out of Reaches.” It’s not “old to begin,” but it’s certainly old to continue. Thankfully then for the listener who suffered through the disarmingly spare “Out of Reaches” (which wasn’t unpleasant for artistic reasons but just unpleasant for simply knowing the amount of disappointment this artist we like has gone through), “Cast off” unleashes climbing, saturnalian guitars which pierce our ear drums and set the twilight reeling in climactic fashion sort of like “Fin,” the finale on Pavement’s excellent Brighten the Corners. And in this vein, “Cast off” does feel awkward for a couple of reasons, other than of course the simple fact that it’s about being cast off, and these would be that (a.) it’s about four minutes too short [2] and (b.) it does have this climactic aspect which would typically ideally be reserved for a track eight or an album closeur or the concurrence of the two, not the lead. But then, I think, these are awkward times we’re living in, times when music is free to listen to. Maybe I’ll roll with it. He**, I’m already at 400 words and I’ve only got into the first song, so I probably will [3].
“Future Suite,” troublingly, like “Cast off,” is not a “suite” at all, but plays nonetheless as champion within Malkmus’ overall achievements for several reasons, one being that the overdubbed vocals actually do cause his pipes to “sparkle” (how’s that for a cheesy title verification), another becoming staple of the song being the lead guitar’s knack for playing as intimidating and unpredictable to then give way to the wistful, pining vocal tone, as if the singer is set to lyrically slip into poetry, which we all know he’s capable of doing. Sure enough, after some wild toggling between sans-guitar vocals, a round, and some crazily taigan drumming by Weiss, “Future Suite” ends with a reference to the “execution tree.” Like its predecessor, it’s too short, this time pegging as maybe three minutes thusly, and not four, in this amateur blogger’s naive estimation.
“Solid Silk,” aside from what I think is a reference to female genitalia like Califone’s albeit more garish “Trout Silk,” plays as an indie hand fully entrenched in his task and drawing influence from Deerhunter, Fleet Foxes, et. al., full of interesting timbres and unorthodox phrasings, one additional token shining then in the form of a string solo with a strangely shaking-earth, calamitous feel to it, every bit calling to mind the modern classical of Stravinsky or Varese.
I think I speak for everyone, then, in the wake of all this gushy sonic emotion, that in “Bike Lane” we get dumb metal every bit in the vein of the classic, Nirvana-encompassing Pavement b-side “False Skorpion,” this time freed from the sharp, yelling vocals and shown a mellower, more laid back mode for making fun of people (this time cops instead of he-men). Really, this ties into the slight snag with “Middle America” and the rest of the album as well as this “Jicks” incarnate as a whole: for those used to the unpredictable histrionics of Pavement vocals, the jagged shrieks, the devolution into atonal rap (as in one of my personal favorites “Blue Hawaiian”), Sparkle Hard in true band form does have the tendency to settle into really having a default disposition (if not all out ONE-DIMENSIONALITY) of strong Weiss drums against weak Malkmus vocals, the posh croon of somebody who knows he’s at this point on top of the indie world [4]. But then, we should have expected as much from the man who gave us the lyrics “Down in Sausalito we had clams and dessert / You spilled some chardonnay on your gypsy skirt”, and considering how much adulation Pavement and his singer have incurred over the years, I can still as a line cook or dishwasher put this music on and play it as something that’s cutting, that stands completely outside the realm of the expedited, panicked and materialistic mainstream, and what’s more, accomplishes its elevated sound and zeitgeist by using, other than the string solo in “Solid Silk,” methods which are very basic and ubiquitous, available to almost anyone within rock and roll.
[1] He you like how you can write like a whole Malkmus review using only his own discography as reference points?
[2] I mean for Christ’s sake, if they can stretch out “Real Emotional Trash” to 10 minutes they can stretch “Cast off” out to seven… artificial constraints of the album opening slot be da**ed… “Achilles Last Stand” anyone?
[3] Of course I guess by Pitchfork’s standards that’s pretty stingy.
[4] Although to be fair, Sparkle Hard comes to us by way of Domino which is distributed in the States by a Warner Bros. faction.

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