Marnie Stern makes music that sounds difficult. Packed with stacks of finger-tapped notes, filled with rifle-fire percussion, and scores of shrill vocals, Stern tends to let you know how hard she is working for everything. And with her fourth album, The Chronicles of Marnia, assures you that great things can come to those who aren’t afraid to work for it, including the listener.
An interesting thing about Stern, an atypical rock star if ever there was one, is that she still gives guitar lessons from her Upper East Side apartment. Stern seems to have steeped these teachings and let them seep into her lyrics. But rather than giving proper instruction on how to hold your fingers, she’s advising how to hold your head. “Don’t you want to be somebody?” she asks above the chugging conga-like rhythms of “Noonan.” On “Nothing Is Easy,” she’s imparting that “There are no coincidences/ no one has ever been cool,” in an ode to both determination and independence. She sounds vague and borderline mawkishly mystical, but when the drums drop out, and she’s left singing and shredding, it becomes earnest, hopeful and optimistic. And she’s right. Nothing is easy, at least the things worth working for, anyways. She’s taken a sighing complaint and turned it into a mantra. Keep calm and lock on. Just keep shredding.
Plus, Stern shows she’s done some learning herself. Here she sounds more polished and pop-friendly than ever, largely thanks to some new additions and some smart subtractions. Her voice still burns brightly on the album, but seems both tempered and gilded, courtesy of the clever production of Nicolas Vernhes (Atlas Sound, Dirty Projectors, Deerhunter). Astonishingly, this is the first time she has worked with a producer. Stern also benefits from working with a new drummer, Kid Millions (Oneida), who stands in for Zach Hill, currently pounding the skins for Death Grips. This swap sounds like an upgrade, as the percussion is still plenty riotous (e.g.: “You Don’t Turn Down”), but frames Stern’s story in a way that doesn’t distract from its beauty. Rather, by stripping away the spare parts, the essence of Stern’s efforts shine through brilliantly, if not exactly effortlessly.
And effort is at the crux of Chronicles. Despite omnipresent everyday obstacles, Stern, 37, is still fine-tuning her sound, still working hard on her craft, still carving out acclaim in a male-dominated field, and ultimately still standing, still shredding. They say the great ones are the ones that make it look easy. Less often, the great ones let you know how hard it is to try and be great, but it’s equally worthy of admiration and attention.