Marnie Stern The Chronicles of Marnia(Kill Rock Stars) Buy it from Insound
Every time I see a guitarist fingertapping I think of Marnie Stern. She has, over the last five years or so, proven herself one of few virtuoso guitarists to infiltrate indie-rock. She could perhaps be compared to math-rock bands like Maps & Atlases, Tera Melos, and Don Caballero – but while that type of music can feel a bit empty underneath the excessive intricacies of song structure, Stern is in a league of her own because her music is always red-bloodedly affective – and even more so on The Chronicles of Marnia, her fourth album. Something of a gear shift from the more personal songwriting of her previous self-titled record, it feels a bit more stripped down, her vocals slightly more prominent.
This is partly down to the departure of scene-stealing drummer Zach Hill, who is preoccupied with his work in Death Grips this time round – instead, Oneida’s Kid Millions takes the sticks. While no one could match Hill’s logic-defying flailing, Millions is one of very few drummers who could equal his productivity and gusto; but he wisely neglects to try and show off as much as Hill naturally did, aiming to be propulsive rather than zany, and accordingly, Stern’s guitar parts aren’t always the gleeful assaults we’re used to. If you found Hill’s presence on Stern’s previous albums too overbearing, this is a welcome change.
But this is still the woman who titled albums This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It And She It And That Is That and, well, The Chronicles of Marnia. Stern is still all about that giddy overspill, it’s just that this time that’s more focused on her vocals and lyrics. It’s still unusual in indie-rock to hear performers really use all the embarrassing excesses of their vocals to a great extent, but Stern plays up all of her vocal tics, creating looped patterns of her squeals and yelps. The record opens with Stern grunting out nasal vowel sounds (Year of the Glad), because Marnie Stern does not care if you find her annoying, and that’s just another thing that makes her so endearing.
But despite this title, and despite the opener’s cautious optimism, Stern is dealing with some big hurdles on the record. Kicking into a gritty beat midway through You Don’t Turn Down, she gasps, 'I am losing hope in my body / Losing hope in my body' – but it’s as if she’s kicking off those anxieties with her impassioned yelps, the bursts of energy in her music jolting against those pangs of insecurity. Her lyrics consistently play upon her frenetic guitar textures as a source of tension. 'I’m working, I’m working so damn hard', she hyperventilates on the title track, before bursting through: “' hope you’re proooouuuud of me'. The fact that one song is titled Nothing is Easy perhaps belabours the point.
On the penultimate track, Proof of Life, there’s a piano-assisted modal-key dip; but her hook 'I am nothing / I am no one' shifts into 'I am something / I am someone' – because Stern isn’t going to leave you hanging like that. Her ambivalent closer, Hell Yes, doesn’t exactly emerge unscathed from the difficulties of the record, but surges on having internalised that angst: 'Won’t give it up / I’ve got time in my hands / All I’ve got is time'.
Stern has given multiple interviews where she unabashedly expresses anxiety over how methodological her music is, how writing music isn’t something that comes naturally to her (perhaps this ties in with the ever-present theme of difficulty). The thing is, Stern’s arrangements are anything but forced. It’s not quite the sheer obliterating brilliance of This Is It And I Am It… (bearer of a rare and deserved 10/10 here on No Ripcord) but there isn’t a single weak track; it’s the most condensed document of her spine-tingling resoluteness. I mentioned before that math-rock can be somewhat empty in affect – not that I’d call Stern math-rock, but she’s using similarly rigid structures and processes, but transcending them, using her voice to counterpoint the Philip Glass-esque precision of her arpeggiated guitar parts. It’s surprising to hear her expressing anxiety about the difficulty of writing music, because every weird twist and turn on The Chronicles of Marnia sounds like the work of a musician so effortlessly absorbed in her craft, so attuned to the expressive qualities of her music, that the internal logic of her songs is completely cohesive and idiosyncratic – and more importantly, really damn fun.1 April, 2013 - 04:43 — Stephen Wragg