Marnie Stern is inspiring. Even when she’s trying not to be, she still inspires. Her last album, “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” (a title I will NOT type again) was a rousing call to arms, a battle cry of motivational songs perhaps best defined by the singular lyric, “The future is yours, so fill this part in”. Outside of her compelling wordplay, Stern’s unique finger-tapping guitar work matched with drummer Zach Hill’s insane beats behind the kit make for another tremendously gripping and inspiring bit of work that gives you a whole other reason to keep listening. For her third album, which is self-titled, Stern might be in a darker place lyrically, but instrumentally things have never been stronger.
Telling people that the opening track “For Ash” on your new album is about an ex-boyfriend’s suicide probably gets across the point that not everything is going to be about positive self-empowerment. That’s perfectly okay though, because while it may be disheartening to hear depressing things from a woman that seemed to be working so hard against it, there’s nothing subtle or cryptic about what’s being said. Stern is in full confessional mode, and that means a lot of plainspoken and direct words that present a vulnerability that she hasn’t ever put on display before. The emotion has always been there, this is just the first time it’s fully risen to the surface for all to see. No matter how far down she goes though, Stern keeps every single song on the album afloat thanks to her larger-than-life guitar work. The speed and heft at which she drives each melody forwards brings a life and energy that gratifies at every turn. Were you to completely ignore the lyrics (which, given the amount the guitars and drums dominate the mix, isn’t too difficult), it’d be easy to mistake this record for something really upbeat and fun. Dark though they may be, Stern’s lyrics are actually the most important part of her songs. Her guitar work certainly makes each song unique, but if you’ve heard one Marnie Stern song, you get the general idea of what her sound is. The WAY she does it, and the WORDS she uses are what take each individual song to the next level from merely very good to absolutely great.
Speaking specifically to how the songs come together on this third album, most everything is still taken with a ‘loud as hell” approach, set to blow out your eardrums were you to turn it up too loud. Even on a ballad like “Transparency Is the New Mystery”, Stern’s guitar is still cranked to 11 whether you like it or not. One of the few moments of sonic respite though comes in the form of the closing track “The Things You Notice”, and that’s a highly fascinating mid-tempo cut that might be the poppiest thing she’s ever done. There’s a starkly beautiful quality about it as well that moves almost in contrast with the sharp-edged and often obtuse guitar work that permeates the rest of the record. And obtuse though they may be, there’s no lack of hooks on this album either, the majority of them coming in the form of near-anthemic shout-alongs. Outside of the two singles, a song like “Building a Body” is a perfect example of that, built to get heads banging and fists pumping. And while Marnie Stern’s substantial work on this album is more than enough for her to self-title this third effort, it remains essential to give credit to drummer Zach Hill and his incredibly propulsive work. Whether he’s doing his own solo thing or helping out Stern, Hill is one of the best drummers working today, and without him this record would have suffered greatly. This may be credited as a Marnie Stern album, but Hill has close to an equal share in this affair and should be recognized as such.
Fans of Marnie Stern’s last album might find this new self-titled effort just a tiny bit more difficult to get into, the main reason being the somewhat pessimistic outlook the lyrics provide. But those darker lyrics are actually great evidence of her growth as an artist, revealing more layers than we’ve heard from her before. It may take a few listens to fully comprehend what she’s aiming for, but once it finally sinks in you’ll fall in love pretty quickly. For sheer immediate energy and excitement though, this is just as good as anything else she’s put out, and there’s just enough variation to prevent it from feeling tired or stale. Stern is too talented a guitarist and Hill too talented a drummer to allow the material to be anything less than unique. This album really is one of the loudest rock records you’ll hear all year, and with enough of a pop edge to stick in your head long after it’s finished. This may be one for year-end consideration, so don’t let it pass you by without at least giving it a quick taste.
Marnie Stern – For Ash
Marnie Stern – Transparency is the New Mystery