Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Sparkle Hard (Matador)

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Solid Silk
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Sparkle Hard (Matador)

Elsewhere has loyally followed the path of former Pavement man Stephen Malkmus and his band the Jicks . . . and that has not always been easy.

From bristling and fuzzed-up psychedelic rock to more refined yet still quirky power pop and even dialed back folk-pop, the trail has sometimes lead into blind alleys or very deep and dark woods.

But that has kept him of interest and although, unpredictable like Neil Young, Malkmus has proven to be more consistently rewarding than the old master.

This one opens with what initially seems like an elegantly simple piano ballad which then changes gear into guitar overdrive for a while before resuming its more measured passage and then explodes again. It is about having the confidence to depart from convention and expectation and is entitled Cast Off.

It's a thematic scene setter on an album which then by turns delivers left-field pop in the manner of Beck (who produced his earlier Mirror Traffic) as on Future Suit, slips into easy-feelin' country rock (Solid Silk), has Kim Gordon on the wryly mature story-telling of the breezy Refute (marriage, huh?) and closes with the gently epic seven minutes of Difficulties/Let Them Eat Vowels, the latter in the segue a natty piece of dreamy, spacious but punchy funk-cum-psychedelic rock.

The lyrical core at the heart of many of these songs are reflections, contained anger (Middle America) and consideration of what America has become (a murder of a civilian by police in the blunt narrative of Bike Lane), and how it feels to be a longtime working artist who has history to reflect on and isn't anybody's fool (Shiggy).

When you consider how long Trump has been in office, it would take about this long for artists to marshall their thoughts and then record. Sucks to be an American right now for many people and that is increasingly coming through.

Despite this album's title (which actually contains the musical ambiguities here), this is an album – produced by the Decemberists' Chris Funk – which bristles with tension and discomfort in places . . . but not so much that it infects the material to make it dyspeptic or depressing. In fact fully half these 11 songs have a jaunty bounce in their step or inviting melodies, and the other half sing out of the speakers on the back of the Jicks' discipline and Malkmus' athletic guitar playing.

And on the odd throb of the quasi-prog Rattler, Malkmus and the Jicks are expanding their musical horizons too. 

If Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks have eluded you then tune in for this one and be prepared to leap back immediately to Mirror Traffic and perhaps Wig Out at Jagbags.

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