[16 December 2008]
Marnie Stern may have taken the title for her second album from Alan Watts’ presciently weird proto-psychedelic LP from 1962, but thankfully she’s still too abrasive to annoy those of us whose teeth are set on edge by hippies. I suppose Stern’s oddly potent blend of feel-good, almost twee sentiment and accomplished noise rock can qualify as psychedelic in its own right, but as with her very few contemporaries in terms of bending this level of sonic aggression into surprisingly poppy forms (say, Parts & Labor), she never settles back into the “guys, isn’t this cool?” kind of fug that tends to afflict those more explicitly chasing that ‘60s sound.
Even a song like “Ruler”, which spends much of its time worrying a fragmentary chorus until it wears grooves in the track, is still spiced by Stern’s continually impressive and satisfying guitar work and Zach Hill’s impressively fluid and brutal drumming (not to mention the tight, seemingly unthinking interplay between the two). There’s a canard that good songs should be able to be performed solo on an acoustic guitar or a piano without losing their appeal, but Marnie Stern is yet another counter-example—the opening “Prime” plays the same brief song twice, once nearly a cappella and once with Stern’s piercing stabs and Hill’s cycling syncopation, and after your first listen the prologue only seems worthwhile to give you time to anticipate the, well, rock.
Because Stern rocks the fuck out in a way that sadly few indie musicians bother to these days. I keep wanting to compare This Is It etc. to Led Zeppelin or something, but not due to Jack White-style apery—I think that’s just where my mind goes when a band does something as casually huge sounding as the brief “Transformer” or “The Crippled Jazzer”. These are visceral, propulsive songs, albeit ones to which verse-chorus-verse doesn’t really apply, and it’s a difficult balance that Stern manages. Absent her winsome lyrical personality these tracks might just be empty bombast, and without Stern, Hill, and their various bassists’ tight connection and instrumental muscle, her off-kilter formulations for personal improvement and awesomeness might be a bit much to take. As it is, the two sides to her music reinforce, even improve each other. It just seems natural that songs that are this compositionally gnarled, noisy, and perversely hook-filled should possess a wide-eyed feeling of wonder, excitement, and positivity (Stern has referred to her songs in interviews as ‘pep talks to myself’). Part of me kind of wants to put her in a studio with Andrew W.K. and see what happens—he and Stern seem so oddly simpatico in some ways, but have taken similar impulses in vastly different directions.
On “The Package Is Wrapped” Stern sings “There are dimensions I must enter to see what I am made of”, and this album certainly feels both joyous and fierce in a way that makes you think she’s constantly testing herself and passing with flying colours. Not perfectly, though: The three songs that follow the astounding “Vault” feel anti-climatic and unnecessary. As This Is It etc. is only just over 40 minutes, that’s a bit odd, but if anything it speaks to the potency of Stern’s music. Lingering in her relentlessly high-energy world for longer than about half an hour can go from being bracing and refreshing to, frankly, a little fatiguing. But surely it must count for something that those first nine tracks, that half an hour, are for what they are just about perfect. And that is that.