Marnie Stern is a purveyor of what Pitchfork semi-facetiously (and wholly accurately) described as “art-metal math-rock bubblegum pop”, a one-woman genre characterised by frenetic tempo changes, pummelling drum fills and the guitar technique known as ‘tapping’ which, due to its association with the likes of Eddie Van Halen, perennially carries the faint whiff of a teenage boy’s bedroom. In Stern’s dexterous hands, however, tapping sounds pretty.
This follow-up to 2008′s hyperactive This Is It & I Am It & You Are It & So Is That & He Is It & She Is It & It Is It & That Is That couldn’t carry a more traditional eponymous label, suggesting that Stern’s heavily caffeinated music might have calmed a little. That’s simply not the case; Marnie Stern is as densely arranged and as freely careening as its predecessor. Listening to it can occasionally feel like riding a rodeo horse: disorientating and not a little tiring.
Give it a fair chance, though, and it begins to make sense. Opener and first single ‘For Ash’ must go down as one of the year’s most adroitly arranged and performed songs. It hurtles out of the tracks with a rapidly ascending series of riffs before Stern halves the pace for a catchy section that resembles a playground chant; she then slows the tempo further still to sing some mournful lyrics concerning a deceased ex-lover (“No-one compares… I miss your smile”), before the song sprints to the finish line in a flurry of chirping vocals and drum rolls. On the first listen it’s exhausting; on the tenth, it’s compelling.
Elsewhere, the galloping and (relatively) poppy ‘Risky Biz’ allows chinks of light to creep in between the riffs, while fans of Stern’s tapping technique will be sated by the Joe Satriani-tastic intro to ‘Cinco De Mayo’. ‘Building A Body’ features some satisfyingly malevolent riffage, and the grinding ‘Her Confidence’ boasts the sort of melody that can only be pieced together long after the event. Stern’s frantic pace only really lets up on the shimmering closer, ‘The Things You Notice’, which features her sweetest vocals to date. It’s a lovely finish to a strange and beautiful album that confirms Stern’s status as an artist sui generis.
[Souterrain Transmissions; October 4, 2010]
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