Listening to Marnie Stern’s music is like riding a rollercoaster. Okay, so I’m aware that it’s a clichéd, tired phrase that is thrown about in conjunction with everything from watching a movie to eating a bad meal, but trust me on this one. With its lightning speed guitars rising and falling and thunderous drums lurching, the comparison here is almost literal. Shredding out more notes in the course of one song than most players manage in a career, the effect is dizzying. This is music at its most exhilarating, as challenging as anything outside of extreme metal and twice as addictive. Put one of Ms. Stern’s CDs in the car stereo, crank it up real loud while you’re driving, and just see if it doesn’t make you nauseous.
If that sounds like a bad thing, it isn’t. Marnie Stern is one of modern music’s brightest maverick talents, and her eponymous third album is very, very good. It also rocks very, very hard, which should come as no surprise to anyone already familiar with either her 2007 debut In Advance Of The Broken Arm or the following year’s 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. As with those records, Stern is joined on drums by Zach Hill (it was Hill’s band Hella that inspired Stern to teach herself guitar, and his encouragement that convinced her to take music as a serious career option), with help this time around on bass from Stern’s boyfriend, Matthew Flegel of Canadian psych-rockers Women. According to the press release, this is her most “direct, honest” album, with Marnie stating “I’m no longer taking cover under guitar lines or yelping vocals,” and whilst it may be true that some of the lyrics here explore previously uncovered emotional ground, it’s a relief to report that said guitar lines and yelping vocals are still present in spades.
Part of Stern’s appeal is her ability to push what should, in theory, be a very limited idea in so many different directions. Her trademark virtuosic finger-tapping guitar style lends itself most obviously to multi-part prog-rock structures like “For Ash” and “Female Guitar Players Are The New Black,” but it’s equally well-suited to looney-tunes fun moments like “Nothing Left” or the earworm pop of “Risky Biz.” “Building A Body” is more straightforward but no less arresting, it’s chunky power chords recalling spiritual ancestors Sleater Kinney, whilst the almost ballad-like “Transparency Is The New Mystery” – with its “It’s not enough/ I’m not enough” refrain – and the gently pulsing solo closer “The Things You Notice” display a softer, more vulnerable side that certainly warrants more outings.
Despite the billing, though, Marnie Stern is far from a one-woman show. As always, Zach Hill’s drumming accounts for a large chunk of the album’s musical personality, alternately propelling and grounding the guitarist’s fantastic flights of fancy, and it’s certainly difficult to imagine, say, “Cinco De Mayo” having the same strutting funk feel without Hill’s input. Having worked together since the very start of Stern’s career, it’s tempting to wonder if he might just be too vital a part of her creative process to contemplate recording without his involvement, but that is something only time will reveal. Presumably it’s an arrangement the pair are happy with, for now at least, and few will argue that Stern is the partnership’s real star attraction. Marnie Stern makes a solid three for three in three years; with every release that tiny bit better than the last, let’s hope she continues letting her imagination run wild.