Album Review: Marnie Stern – Marnie Stern (Souterrain Transmissions)

‘Female Guitar Players Are The New Black’ and nine others show off her dexterity and inventiveness

[a]Marnie Stern[/a] had almost nothing to do with the year’s micro-shifts of musical fashion when she released her first album in 2007. When she released her second a year later, this was very much still the case. A new decade brings a third full-length and (what we will assume is) a bolstered level of confidence for NYC’s wizard lady of the math-rock axe, given that she couldn’t conceive any better name for the album than… her own. Large swathes of US alt.rock has slowed down, fuzzed out, smoked itself into a ball and generally simplified. Marnie does none of these things, and what results is a sound more ineffably hers than ever.

If Marnie Stern – or indeed ‘Marnie Stern’ – is that much of a one-off, then, you’ll be wanting a dab of context. As a guitar player, she’s an unashamed maximalist, churning out impossible chord changes and tapping the fretboard with the dexterity, if not the jumpsuits, of a young Eddie Van Halen. Perhaps the most shredtastically indulgent performance across the album’s 10-track, 34-minute duration comes at its midpoint, on ‘Female Guitar Players Are The New Black’.

Marnie’s unique selling point is the sweetness and emotion with which she tempers her songs (her semi-childlike indie-rock vocal style helps this along somewhat.) Most of the bands whose tricksy styles have influenced her own tend to be bullishly upfront to the point of incomprehensibility. Think Rhode Island’s masked twosome Lightning Bolt, or California’s prog-rock demons Hella – whose drummer Zach Hill batters away insanely on this album, as he does on Stern’s previous two.

Marnie, on the other hand, is capable of subtlety, and employs it. Opener ‘For Ash’, fits joyful sun-coming-up vocal refrains between fantastical guitar widdle and nutty drum fills. It’s a bit like a compacted version of Japanese psychedelic veterans the Boredoms – high praise indeed. By the album’s own standards its most straightforward rocker, ‘Risky Biz’ is a glam rock-tinged stomp which will still not get within a hundred miles of any indie dancefloor. Lyrically, it lends itself to an almost… singalong status, again relative to what Stern could be heard muttering over the manic twiddles of her first two albums. “I’ve got something in my soul/Growing into something you can touch…” our girl beams.

Can you feel my hands stretch?” she asks us, repeatedly, on ‘Cinco De Mayo’. In a way, Marnie, we can. We worry on your behalf about carpal tunnel syndrome, in fact. Until then, permit us to bug out to the controlled chaos.

Noel Gardner

Click here to get your copy of Marnie Stern’s ‘Marnie Stern’ from Rough Trade Shops.