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CD of The Week

Week of 5/21/18

    Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Sparkle Hard (Matador)

    Given a long enough career, any new music will inevitably be judged against an artist's earliest, most vital work. Legacy acts, when releasing new material, are frequently really reviewed on their earlier work. This is doubly true when a musician moves from one band to another. As such, it's hard to evaluate Stephen Malkmus' work with The Jicks without speaking of Pavement, which is ultimately unfair. On Sparkle Hard, there's not a lot to connect to the unexpected affectations of Slanted and Enchanted from over 25 years ago. The strongest link is "Shiggy," which feels like a Pavement track that got a bit older, tired, and more organized. It's a mid-tempo rocker, but it definitively rocks. Elsewhere, "Future Suite" travels some of the disjointed roads of yesteryear. Throughout the album, Malkmus employs his trademark noodling guitar to flesh out many of the songs, but for the most part, it is his voice alone that links us to the past. The music itself feels like it has aged, not poorly, but noticeably, and its writer assumes the role of the sort of elder statesman that he would likely have scoffed at as a younger man.

    This said, it's not remotely a complaint to see an artist change, and the more standard approach benefits the album tremendously. While "Bike Line" seemingly tries a bit hard to say something profound, the straightforward sweet indie rock of "Middle America" feels comfortable and charming, words one would never use for Pavement. The reverb-heavy, spacey "Rattler" feels a bit lost in the verses (though the crunchy solos come to the rescue), but the quiet "Kite" implements similar effects more comfortably. Malkmus' sound is changing, mellowing, and arguably maturing. He's not really as comfortable in youthful irony these days as he is in stories which feel at turns wistful and at others cautionary. That's not to say it's missing completely ("Brethren" especially gives a bit of classic cheek), but it is to say that when the simple, twangy "Refute" comes by, with an equally toned-down Kim Gordon dueting, the listener can hardly be surprised by the mood. Malkmus seems to be finding his footing anew with age, and the best of this album suggests the next chapter, whether with the Jicks or otherwise, is just beginning.

    Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks play The TLA on June 16th.

    Review by Alex Lupica

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