STEPHEN MALKMUS and the JICKS – ” Traditional Techniques “

Posted: January 31, 2021 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Four long years after their last release, the deliciously titled “Wig Out at Jagbags”, Stephen Malkmus and his balmy Jicks Band return with an equally delicious follow-up. Spread across 11 tracks, the former Pavement frontman meditates on a changing world by changing with it, leaning on newer toys like an Auto-Tune and Mellotron. He even gets political without all the gimmicky trappings that traditionally come with being an aging white rocker trying to stand on a soapbox.

Why It Rules:For all those reasons and more, Malkmus arrives in top form on Sparkle Hard, sounding like a bona fide bard of his generation. Make no mistake, he still knows how to get silly, but it’s the type of silly one might attribute to whimsically clever authors like Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss. Songs like “Bike Lane”, “Kite”, and especially “Shiggy” prove he still has his eye on the stage while deeper cuts like “Solid Silk” and “Middle America” hint that he’d just as happily stroll around the neighborhood. “Bike Lane” is a high point on one of Malkmus’ strongest albums, which puts it in rare company indeed.

Stephen Malkmus  is known for an easygoing air on songs full of jangling guitars and wandering subject matter, a reputation he undercuts with savage social commentary on the tightly focused “Bike Lane.” The song, from Sparkle Hard, his latest with the Jicks, skewers misplaced cultural priorities as he juxtaposes an observational, mild-mannered refrain—“Another beautiful bike lane”—with a brutally casual recounting of how a young black man named Freddie Gray died at the hands of Baltimore police officers in 2015. It’s bracing, as Malkmus offers sarcastic sympathy for the cops, and also irresistibly catchy, with a propulsive beat, squiggles of keyboards and an off-kilter guitar workout.

“I will not be one of the watchers/I will not disappear,” Stephen Malkmus sings on “Middle America,” one the best songs from his seventh solo album. an ambling rumination on growing older, featuring a probable allusion to the #MeToo movement: “Men are scum, I won’t deny.” Malkmus continues to mix it up with spacey vocoder-enhanced vocals on prog-jam “Rattler” The elder indie statesman doesn’t have much to prove (as if he ever sang like someone who did) but he and his band aren’t resting on laurels here. Riffing on sunshiny pop, country balladry — with Kim Gordon in tow! — prog workouts, and extended jams equally indebted to the Dead and Neu!, Malkmus gets in where he fits in. Clever as ever but warmer, too.

I hear echoes of the Pavement song “Greenlander” in “Middle America” – not enough that they’re extremely similar on a structural level, but close enough in tone that they share a particular shade of melancholy and evoke a frigid and empty landscape. In lyrical terms they’re from very different ends of a lifespan. “Greenlander” confronts a very youthful sort of awkwardness and regret, with the line “everything I did was right, everything I said was wrong / now I’m waiting for the night to bring me dawn” standing out as one of the young Malkmus’ more straightforward and poignant moments. “Middle America” is more like a collection of wise thoughts and observations, but presented in a humble and low-key way. There’s some good advice in the song but the emotional power of it lies more in the bits where he seems far less certain of himself or anything else. There’s something in the way he sings the “in the winter time” hook that conveys a sweet vulnerability and vague doubt that actually makes him come across as a stronger and more reliable person.

As the frontman of Pavement, Stephen Malkmus recorded some of the most influential, indie genre–defining albums of the twentieth century. For better or worse, it’s work all of his subsequent productions will be measured against, even though he’s been recording solo for nearly twenty years now. Sparkle Hard, his seventh solo album, stands firmly with one foot in the past and the other in the present. An “if it ain’t broke, why fix it” mentality lends a well-worn familiarity, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t playing around with our expectations a little. Kim Gordon cameo on the stripped-down, twangy, tongue-in-cheek “Refute.” All the while, he retains his signature effortlessness, stepping back when things start to get too serious.

Maybe that’s why this album feels so aptly timed. We’re within the midst of a nostalgia boom for bands that defined the ’90s, while current mainstream rock seems to take itself more and more seriously, panicking that the genre is on the decline despite a new class of young, wry indie artists nipping at their heels (many of whom seem to have studied at the School of Malkmus Wit). We needed a new record from Stephen Malkmus to remind us that rock isn’t dead.

From the new album ‘Traditional Techniques’ by Stephen Malkmus

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