A Guitar Hero Guide to Marnie Stern
When Marnie Stern was 21, her mother encouraged her to learn how to play the guitar. But while her mother listened to rock ‘n’ roll pioneers like Chuck Berry, Stern turned to bands like Ponytail and Lightning Bolt, who focused on fragmented, off-kilter melodies rather than rhythmic, satisfying ones––finger-tapping instead of strumming.
In her 2007 debut In Advance of the Broken Arm, Stern wielded these melodies like a newfound superpower. As a result, The New York Times said that her album was the most exciting in rock ‘n’ roll of that year, even though it was only February. In Advance… features just three musicians (Stern, bassist John-Reed Thompson and drummer Zach Hill––then of Hella, now with Death Grips), but the album proposes a grandiose scheme: How loud can we be? How fast can we play? How big can we dream?
Since then however, the New York resident has fixated on the last question in particular. She has said that her new album The Chronicles of Marnia (released Tuesday) may be her last, because despite the critical acclaim, she has not seen the commercial success to match. It’s a shame that Stern has to entertain this thought, because as her four albums make clear, we would be losing a guitar hero with heart.
In Advance of the Broken Arm
While her finger-tapped melodies earned Marnie Stern comparisons to Eddie Van Halen, the title of her debut title says it all: Stern would rather risk physically impairing herself than to play it like the greats. In fact, In Advance of the Broken Arm only nods once to the pioneering rock ‘n’ roll that her mother loves––in the shrapnel-filled “The Weight of a Rock,” where Stern’s girlish voice bops like a deadpan Jerry Lee Lewis.
In contrast, Stern sings like a child playing schoolyard clapping games in the otherwise nervous “Put All Your Eggs in One Basket and Then Watch That Basket!!!” In “Healer,” when she sings, “Yes! Yes! Yes, the answer’s yes!” she’s breathless, as if she’s accepted a marriage proposal. She sounds elated to drum up one avalanche of noise after another––like in opener “Vibrational Match,” when she sings, “I am reaching in, reaching in / it’s all fine for you,” as if satisfied to be at the eye of this chaos.
While In Advance… can feel numbing by eighth song “This American Life,” Stern still makes it difficult not to feel in awe. With her quick notes and short yelps, her joyful music is like the work of an anthill––one of stadium-sized proportions, despite its incredibly modest means.
Other favorite songs: “Absorb Those Numbers,” “Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling”
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
If In Advance of the Broken Arm was an act of gleeful discovery, follow-up (brace yourself) 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 is a nervous reconsideration of how fear can easily color opportunity into an obstacle.
This Is It feels like accelerating and then pumping the brakes. She does this within songs like “The Crippled Jazzer,” where in the parts leading up to cries of a chorus, Stern’s band wheezes like an assembly line at work. She does this throughout the album, too. In second track “Transformer,” Stern repeats nine words: “The future is yours, so fill this part in.” It’s a rallying cry that she could use in the jittery seventh track, “The Package is Wrapped,” as she raps, “There are dimensions to my standards, to see what I am made of.”
As she seems to imply in “Roads? Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Roads,” Stern dives and then works through her insecurities as a test, to herself and to others who are listening. “I present two sides: my hopelessness and my faith, my ego and my heart, my feelings and my brain,” she says. It makes for the perfect disclaimer, especially since her life would only get harder from here.
Other favorite songs: “Prime,” “Ruler”
For six years, up until her first-ever boyfriend committed suicide, Marnie Stern held onto this hope that maybe, just maybe he would take her back. She wrote two songs explicitly about her refusal to let go of him, “For Ash” and “Cinco de Mayo,” although throughout, Marnie Stern barrels through the guitarist’s losses and plummets into what’s left.
“I’ve got something in my soul, pushing me to hold onto the pain, pulling me in to something you cannot change,” Stern sings in “Risky Biz,” her voice steady. This sort of motivation is why Marnie Stern is both thrilling and devastating. In third track “Transparency is the New Mystery,” where Stern sings, “I,” until it swells and soars, only to land on a devastating realization: “…’m waiting for you.” As for the dizzying “Cinco De Mayo,” Stern blasts through power riffs as she continues to insist, “You’ll always be here, and here, and here, and here…” until it feels like she’s working through fits and starts.
When Stern sings of “you,” she sings as if she’d rather not think of the void that “you” left behind. By the album’s end, however, it’s easy to see what she’s become, in direct result of her loss––a guitar hero with a ton of heart.
Other favorite songs: “Nothing Left,” “The Things You Notice”
The Chronicles of Marnia
Marnie Stern says that she spends most of her days in her Upper East Side apartment, writing and listening and picking apart music, but also wondering when she’ll be able to afford health insurance. The Chronicles of Marnia is Stern creating swan songs of her hopes and faults, and it is also her most focused album yet.
New-to-her producer Nicholas Vernhes pushed Stern to stop hiding behind her finger-tapped melodies. As a result, nearly all of Marnia‘s momentum relies on her voice––as in the album’s title track, Stern sings its chorus (“I’m working, I’mworkingsodamnhard … I hope you’re proud of me”) as fast as she can and as high as her voice can squeak. “Proof of Life,” the sparsest song Stern has ever written, sinks as soon as the guitarist comes to a harsh realization: “I am nothing, I am no one.”
“Proof of Life” acts as the polar opposite to the hopeful opener “Year of the Glad,” where she staggers her syllables while singing “full of dreams,” as if she’s creating a warrior cry. In both of these songs, as in throughout Marnia, Stern rests on both good and bad moments without trying to fight them off, as if she knows that they will pass, too. Closer “Hell Yes” may as well be a thesis statement: “All I got is time.”
Other favorite songs: “You Don’t Turn Down, ” “Immortals”
The Chronicles of Marnia is out now on iTunes and via Kill Rock Stars.