Album Review: Marnie Stern – Marnie Stern

by Dakin Hardwick on October 8, 2010

I’ve been following Marnie Stern’s career nearly from the get-go. Her first record, In Advance Of The Broken Arm, is still one of my all time favorite records, and hardly a week goes by without giving it a listen. I enjoyed her second record, This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, but, as is the case with many sophomore releases, I didn’t become infatuated with it as much as the debut. So, here we have record number three. A record that’s pre-buzz has led me to believe that we have a “serious departure,” and, what may be the one thing that has me approaching with the greatest caution, “ballads.” My biggest fear would be that one of the most aggressive players in rock music today has gone gentle.

Well, the record begins with a track called “For Ash.” (Which can be downloaded for free here.) And by begins, I mean hits you right over the head. Zach Hill, of Hella fame, is on drums again, and his signature playing style, equal parts Buddy Miles (Jimi Hendrix)¬† and Animal (Dr Teeth & The Electric Mayhem) is mixed front and center, while Stern’s now-signature finger tapping/shredding is mixed around it. The opening track is an aggressive, yet triumphant piece of sonic glory. Her voice, practically a soprano, is swirled into the mix in a stunning way, one were you barely notice that it’s singing, just another layer of sound. My fears about this being an easy listening record of ballads is put to rest within 30 seconds.

Where the record goes next is even more interesting. After the Sleater-Kinney inspired pop/punk of “Nothing Left,” we have a pair of these so called “ballads.” The songs are called “Transparency Is The New Optimism” and “Risky Biz.” Although technically ballads, these probably won’t be getting played on your local “lite rock/less talk” station anytime soon. These are two pieces of music that are stunning and emotionally direct and nearly indescribable. What we basically have with these two tracks is a very technically proficient musician playing from her heart, and singing about something very real. These two songs are very dark, and are also the tracks that take this record to the next level. She is no longer playing the role of guitar goddess on this album. In the past, her each track was another sonic experiment. On this record, she is paying much more attention to songcraft.

Not to say that she still isn’t pushing boundaries. In fact, I think she’s pushing more boundaries by working inside¬† traditional song structure. The playing is still intense, and she manages to make sounds out of her guitar that nobody could even imagine. Her singing has improved dramatically as well. Her range is widening as she becomes more confident with herself as a singer. (A similar progression can be heard through the first few Eric Clapton solo records.)

The following six tracks take an interesting journey. No two tracks sound alike, and none of them sound like anything ever heard before. Some stand-out tracks include the epic “Building A Body,” which is under 3-minutes long, but has about 6 different movements, and the album closer “The Things You Notice,” which is the tenderest song you’ll ever hear that also sounds like a collaboration between Primus and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Marnie Stern is a brilliant body of work, and you will be seeing it on many year end lists. It shows great growth and maturity, and improves with every listen.

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