Review Summary: Malkmus’ continued exploration of guitar-rock, psychedelia, funk, and progressive/classic rock is an inspiration to any artist wondering what post-fame can bring to their artistic resume.
Living up to icon status is never easy in the musical world, especially when that ship sailed in the 1990s and you’re over fifty years of age. Maybe that’s why Stephen Malkmus, the former front man of Pavement, has been content writing modest, guitar-driven indie rock for the better part of two decades…I mean why chase even more
fame, especially if that’s not the lifestyle you want？Indulging his more subdued-yet-experimental whims has resulted in a couple of outstanding projects with the Jicks, namely 2001’s self-titled album and 2011’s Mirror Traffic
. Now, Sparkle Hard
joins that company as one of his records with the most to offer. It’s an album that pits succinct, tightly-crafted melodies directly alongside more daring arrangements, and the whole thing couldn’t feel more interconnected.
keeps things loose and eclectic from start to finish so that surprising twists feel right at home. For example, the pulsing, spacey, and highly-synthesized “Rattler” lends credence to rumors that Malkmus may have an electronic album in the works, while the more funky, soulful “Kite” would sound like something off a mid-90s RHCP effort if only they had an affinity for three-minute guitar solos. As with most Malkmus and the Jicks ventures, Sparkle Hard
is a guitar-rock album at heart, serving to both drive and guide the piece at will – from the calming acoustics of “Brethren” to the revved-up electricity of “Shiggy.” While the album is truly a mixed product in terms of style, Malkmus never totally loses his grip, keeping things tidily organized and refreshingly lightweight throughout.
There are certainly moments here that “sparkle harder” than the rest however, such as the breezy, classical strings that push “Solid Silk” into breathtakingly effervescent territory ,or the dichotomy of “Difficulties – Let Them Eat Vowels”, which begins as an ambitious, sweeping curtain call before transforming into carefree, riff-driven psychedelia. But other than a few epic zeniths, Sparkle Hard
rarely ascends beyond what it is – solid indie rock painted with a very broad stylistic brush. The influences are all tied together quite nicely and explored dutifully, but they tend to be more interesting
than overtly enjoyable or awe-inspiring…and that’s sort of the gist across much of the album. Take for example the penultimate “Refute”, which has twangy vocals, fiddles, and even a guest appearance by Kim Gordon. There’s obviously a lot going on, but some of the talent feels wasted on a song that floats by rather harmlessly before culminating in a very predictable harmony between the two singers. “Cast Off” deserves an honorable mention for the way it introduces the album – replete with pianos and pounding drums that gradually build like a wave ready to crash – but little else on Sparkle Hard
paints all that vivid a picture.
An intriguing niche-record that occasionally meanders into greatness, Malkmus has crafted something that, at the very least, offers variation to its listeners. Even if the most worthwhile moments are a little too easy to pick off the top, Sparkle Hard
remains an entirely worthwhile pursuit that resides within the upper echelon of Malkmus’ post-Pavement output. The way he experiments and progresses his sound is admirable, and it has resulted in some must-hear moments on this very record. If his best days are behind him (during his days with Pavement), then Malkmus’ continued exploration of guitar-rock, psychedelia, funk, and progressive/classic rock is an inspiration to any artist wondering what post-fame can bring to their artistic resume.