Eccentric but accessible – his best yet?

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Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Sparkle Hard

For two icons of American alternative rock’s golden age to unite for their first ever duet somehow feels like a more momentous occasion than it probably should. After all, it’s been a while since Gen Xers of a certain slack disposition were the pinnacle of cool. Nearly a quarter-century has passed since Stephen Malkmus and Kim Gordon – who trade the mic on “Refute”, a loopy highlight of the former Pavement frontman’s seventh album with his band the Jicks – shared stages on the same Lollapalooza tour, a rite of passage for any act that curried the favour of the flannel-clad masses. What with the many cultural revolutions (and one big digital one) that have taken place in the intervening years, those times ought to feel several lifetimes away.

Somehow, though, the ’90s have edged back into the present. Original articles like The Breeders and Weezer are on surprisingly fine form of late, and relative youngsters such as Courtney Barnett, Speedy Ortiz, Parquet Courts and Wolf Alice have been tearing pages out of their scrappy playbook. And while “Refute” may offer a milder kind of pleasure than the noisier ones of its singers’ old bands or these newer successors, this ambling, affably middle-aged piece of ragged country-rock is still a testament to its performers’ stubborn commitment to their own idiosyncrasies. Malkmus, for one, is content to do things pretty much as he’s always done, albeit a little bit differently so there’s a reason to come back for more.

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The man’s never been much for radical reinvention, anyway. Over the course of his career with the Jicks – who have now outlasted Malkmus’s previous group by two albums and seven years, not counting Pavement’s 2010 reunion tour – he’s essentially oscillated between two prevailing tactics. One is to further refine his aptitude for almost-power-pop in the mould of “Box Elder”, the jagged wonder on Pavement’s first EP, “Slay Tracks (1933-1969)”, and the earliest sign of his casual flair for sticky melodies. The other is to let his freak flag fly in ragged jams full of florid guitar solos, all while spouting the sort of inscrutable non sequiturs that suggest the most profound influence on Malkmus’s sensibility 
was always American poet John Ashbery, no matter what Mark E Smith ever had to say about Pavement.

Whereas Malkmus’s 2001 self-titled solo debut and 2011’s Beck-produced Mirror Traffic were sometimes overly hemmed-in examples of the former, Pig Lib (2003) and Real Emotional Trash (2008) were more sprawling successors to Wowee Zowee (1995), a work whose absurd overabundance made it the most divisive but the richest of Pavement’s LPs. Like 2014’s Wig Out At Jagbags, Sparkle Hard exists at a comfortable place between those two poles; in fact it may be the most satisfying synthesis of those extremes he’s ever achieved in the Jicks.

Recorded last year in Portland’s Halfling Studios with The Decemberists’ Chris Funk serving as producer, the new album also boasts a wider range of sounds than he’s generally used on his recordings with the Jicks: bassist Joanna Bolme, guitarist and keyboardist Mike Clark and drummer Jake Morris. The string contributions by Kyleen King are the most dramatic example of the additional colours here.

Malkmus’s dreamy tumble of tranquil and more turbulent images in “Solid Silk” take on a more ethereal aspect thanks to King’s lovely, Robert Kirby-like arrangement. “Brethren” is a further suggestion of the music Malkmus might’ve made had he traded his allegiance from lo-fi to orch-pop back when those designations were ubiquitous among the indie cognoscenti. While “Refute” benefits from some gentle embellishments of lap-steel guitar by Funk, other songs get burlier thanks to the swirls of Mellotron and blurts and burbles of vintage synths. Malkmus even distorts his vocals with Auto-Tune tweaking on “Rattler”, which may be the most surprising thing he’s done with his voice since his stab at an Isley Brothers slow jam on the Wig Out At Jagbags standout “J Smoov”.

Of course, he also gets to bring out his favourite guitar pedals and make like it’s an afternoon jam at Bonnaroo. “Shiggy” – a nonsense word that nonetheless feels like the right one to describe the sounds he likes to make – is another superb showcase of his loopy and oddly languid playing. One of Sparkle Hard’s two songs to pass the six-minute mark, “Kite” slinks along in a funkier, more wah-wah-heavy manner until he flips the “Dark Star” switch and covers it all in a distorted, psychedelic smear of cascading licks (not for nothing was the Jicks’ medley of “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider” a highlight of Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s Grateful Dead tribute project Day Of The Dead). Sparkle Hard’s finale “Difficulties/Let Them Eat Vowels” is equally expansive and enthralling. What begins as a stately, synth-heavy channelling of Bowie in Berlin culminates in an Ege Bamyasi-worthy slice of space-rock boogie.

All of those reference points may comprise a familiar sweet spot for Malkmus, but even the lengthier, wilder songs feel more carefully considered in their construction. Likewise, he makes the effort to give some heft and complexity to ones that may have stayed throwaways on previous albums. Built on the herky-jerky rhythm that’s long been one of his default modes, “Future Suite” evolves into an ebullient piece of cosmic pop thanks to its deftly arranged thicket of guitars and Malkmus’s multi-tracked vocals.

Surprises abound in the lyrics, too. While Malkmus has never been much for sociopolitical concerns in his writing, he’s evidently disturbed by the turbulence, divisiveness and general cruddiness of the Trump era. Full of rumbling, fuzzy guitars and an oddly jaunty electric piano part by Clark, “Bike Lane” is uncharacteristically direct in its take on the story of Freddie Gray, the young man whose death after injuries sustained during an arrest prompted anti-police riots in Baltimore in 2015. “They got behind him with their truncheons and choked the life right out of him,” cries Malkmus in this dark, strange song. A younger cousin to “Gold Soundz”, “Middle America” is milder in nature but thick with references to the contemporary climate of blame, fear and anxiety. “Men are scum, I won’t deny,” he sings in one of many barbed couplets. “May you be shitfaced the day you die.” His frustrations may run highest in “Difficulties/Let Them Eat Vowels”, in which Malkmus likely becomes the first songwriter to ever deploy the word “microaggress” before describing the world as “a cavalcade of reactive morality”, which sounds like the way Nietzsche might have described Fox News. In any case, there’s more than enough here to suggest he’s awake even if he’s far too sardonic to ever be what the kids call woke.

Despite its sometimes laidback nature, Sparkle Hard also bristles with an energy that proves he’s got a place in the present, and a new accessibility that compromises none of his eccentricities. Perhaps he fits best next not just to the likes of Courtney Barnett, but also Kurt Vile and Father John Misty, two less ’90s-centric artists whose work still bears the influence of his reliably acerbic sensibility and eagerness to be anomalous. Just goes to show that it pays to be one of a kind, at least if you’re able to outlast most of your peers.

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The July 2018 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – with Public Image Ltd on the cover in the UK and Johnny Cash overseas. Elsewhere in the issue, you’ll find exclusive new interviews with Ray Davies, Father John Misty, Pink Floyd, Mazzy Star, Sleaford Mods, Neko Case and many more. Our free CD showcases 15 tracks of this month’s best new music, including Father John Misty, Neko Case, Natalie Prass, Melody’s Echo Chamber, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and Jon Hassell.

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