Stephen Malkmus (left) and Lithics Credit: Photos by Giovanni Duca (Malkmus) and Christie MacLean

It’s a little crazy to think that Steve Malkmus has been fronting the Jicks for half again as long as he served as the face of indie-rock paragons Pavement—maybe it just seems like a shorter span to me because his solo work has never resonated the same way his old band did. A couple weeks ago, Malkmus dropped his seventh solo album, Sparkle Hard (Matador), and though I don’t see it restoring him to his 90s relevance, it’s far more direct and less fussy than most Jicks records—it’s my favorite thing he’s done since Pavement called it quits in 1999.

Some of the songs are as topical and unequivocal as anything the notoriously oblique Malkmus has ever written, particularly the infectiously churning “Bike Lane.” Its lyrics pit complacent self-absorption against the grim reality of police brutality by juxtaposing the urban privilege of new bike lanes with the death of Freddy Gray at the hands of Baltimore police. In the second verse Malkmus expresses mock sympathy for the cops, parodying the arguments of Blue Lives Matter, but he’s not exactly shy about his own politics: “Kick off your jackboots, it’s time to unwind,” he sings, and toward the end of the song, a backbeat chant of “Oi!” invokes a late-70s UK punk scene not exactly known for its friendliness to police. Check it out below.

Previous Jicks albums have gotten tangled up in proggy excess, with guitar solos unfocused enough to feel purloined from the Grateful Dead, but here Malkmus isn’t messing around. Aside from a couple superfluous Auto-Tune treatments on his voice, he doesn’t try anything fancy, instead trusting in his low-key delivery and lived-in melodic sensibility. Many of the songs address a lack of self-awareness about the way life deals radically different hands to people. Malkmus seems to indict himself in “Middle America” when he brings up the widespread rejection of accountability—the line “Men are scum, I won’t deny” feels more like he’s passing the buck than owning up to anything. When Kim Gordon joins him for a duet on “Refute,” it can’t help but come across as a reflection on Thurston Moore’s infidelity to Gordon, especially when Malkmus sings:

This is a verse about a man who dared
To fall head over heels for a woman who shared
Similar interests, similar looks
Similar taste in similar books

Malkmus and the Jicks headline Thalia Hall on Sunday evening. I’d advise arriving early, because openers Lithics have impressed me plenty with their recent debut album, Mating Surfaces (Kill Rock Stars). The Portland four-piece channel early postpunk, with Aubrey Hornor chanting dispassionately over Mason Crumley’s wiry guitar and the jagged, spazzy grooves of bassist Bob Desaulniers and drummer Wiley Hickson. The music ripples with the twitchy, herky-jerky energy of great late-70s bands such as Essential Logic, Bush Tetras, Delta 5, and Kleenex—and the first seconds of album opener “Excuse Generator” sound like they were swiped from the early X classic “Los Angeles.” Below you can check out of my favorites from the record, “Specs.”

Today’s playlist:

Aki Takase, My Ellington (Intakt)
Thomas Zehetmair/Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, Robert Schumann (ECM)
Laura Nyro, A Little Magic, A Little Kindness: The Complete Mono Albums Collection (Real Gone Music/Columbia)
Caetano Veloso, Transa (Philips)
Gurdjieff, Improvisations (Mississippi/Change/Psychic Sounds)