Marnie Stern Releases Face-Melting New Album
Stern makes progressive music for the indie crowd. The newest euphemism for this is “math rock, ” and as that label implies, the music is technical, spastic and not always accessible. Stern’s high-pitched, screechy vocal style is an acquired taste, kind of like a hyperactive cartoon chipmunk double-tracking itself.
She’s a different kind of guitar hero in that she doesn’t play the way conventionally talented guitarists do. Her two-handed tapping arpeggios form the basis for most of her songs. The tapping riffs are manic cloudbursts of sound. Think Eddie van Halen meets Sleater-Kinney.
The new record, her third for Kill Rock Stars, doesn’t let up much, but it does broaden her range. Stadium-ready power chords anchor “Female Guitar Player Are the New Black,” a statement on the way journalists sometimes receive her, as if girl guitar heroes are still a novelty. (They’re not!) On “Nothing Left,” she shouts, “The madman told me not to walk that plank!” over a stampede of drums and guitars.
There are moments of downright prettiness, though, like the flowing intro to “The Things You Notice.” The guitars seem to sigh as they float over the flowing five-beat rhythm. “Gimme” features an odd-meter interlude that evokes an off-kilter Journey song. On “Transparency is the New Mystery,” she oozes loneliness and vulnerability as she sings, “I’m too late / You’ve got her / It’s not enough / I’m not enough.”
She tends to write sweet love songs with short, declarative, sometimes cryptic lines as if she hurriedly scribbled them into a diary. “I’m using a color they call night blue / I’m tracking a predator that’s near you,” she sings on “Nothing Left.” The words make impressions instead of telling stories.
Stern is the visionary here. But, in prog rock, the drummer makes the band, and Zach Hill is the perfect partner. As on his records with Hella and in his solo material, his drum parts are clean and precise. Every fill on “Build Her Confidence” is like a increasingly complicated skateboard trick. Sudden shifts in tempo and disorienting stop-start antics give a sense that sound itself is leaning forward.
The riot grrrl movement may have ended, but Stern and Hill are taking those influences to a new level. Take the fire power of Bikini Kill and add the virtuosity of the Stern-Hill combo, and you get something no other band is doing. That’s the most accessible math there is.
Reach Reporter Ryan Faughnder here.