Well, it's here. The pop move that everybody has been waiting for Marnie Stern to make ever since In Advance Of The Broken Arm came out in 2007 has finally happened. Of course, we're talking "pop" in an extremely relative sense. Stern is no less the guitar virtuoso she was when she first finger-tapped her way into the world of contemporary indie rock, and there are several moments on Marnie Stern that are just as head spinning as her previous releases are. Where her third album differs is in the increased ratio of time spent smashing the melodic pleasure button versus engaging in technical math-rock freakouts. It results in a stunning album that's like a single firework that shoots into the sky, explodes, lets the embers fall briefly, and then starts exploding again and again.
It's certainly her most personal work to date. First, it's self-titled, putting her name out there instead of hiding behind oblique phrases or 31-word-long run-on sentences like she did on her previous full length (abridged by many, probably for word count's sake, as This Is It...). The cover art and liner notes depict a bedroom and the items that inhabit it, inviting us to check out the little things that make her happy. The more inviting musical moments, where she and human octopus drummer Zach Hill dial back the chop-busting insanity, reveal a vulnerable heart that isn't afraid to express longing or wide-grinned happiness.
There is no better example of Stern's newer direction than "Transparency Is The New Mystery." The song revolves around a simple, chiming guitar figure, a series of buildups, and a hair-raising vocal swoon from Stern that sends it into its crashing and then bouncing chorus. During that chorus, the line "it's not enough" morphs into the downcast "I'm not enough." Meanwhile, Hill lays down one of his most restrained drum tracks ever but still drops some erratic fills here and there, as if the song's sadness is causing him to trip over his parts. Paired with the darker, post-punk tinged "Building A Body," you get two of Stern's most straightforward songs to date.
While those two tracks showcase Stern cutting back on the pyrotechnics in favor of hooks, her biggest triumph this time around is in the way she's able to fuse her two sides into truly compelling pieces. Most of "Gimme" might be covered in wiry guitar leads, but her rhythm guitar stomps along on a four-chord pattern that you could easily insert into a pop-punk tune. Other songs here that use a similar technique, and there are a few, are inviting with their familiarity, but dazzling due to their embellishments.
With this album, Marnie Stern has proved once again that there are several effective ways to emotionally recontextualize her craft. Or, to put it simply, she's managed to produce one of the most fun albums of the year.
With a clear knack for unbelievably quick, intricate guitar playing and intriguing songwriting, Marnie Stern has earned her share of accolades since debuting in 2007 with In Advance of the Broken Arm. She gained even more adulation the following year, when she released 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 for her third project, Stern wanted to go for a more direct, honest approach. Her self-titled album, which again features Zach Hill, “pays more attention to the delicate and subtly layered spaces in between sound and just make things louder and fuller.” She also said that she is no longer taking cover under guitar lines or yelping vocals.” In other words, expected the unexpected on here.