There’s a song on Marnie Stern’s new album called “Female Guitarists Are the New Black”, a title which can only be taken as tongue-in-cheek when you consider the artist in question. Even if that premise were true, no fad or fashion can do justice to a one-of-a-kind talent like the technically prodigious and artistically idiosyncratic Stern. The track is the type of composition that only Stern is capable of, sounding like she’s challenged herself to a guitar showdown, as pedal-to-the-heavy-metal finger-tapping flourishes duel with pile-driving riffs. As they start to go back and forth, trying to one-up and outdo each other, the sonic onslaught keeps coming at greater and greater intensity, heightened by the rapid-fire beats of the only drummer who can keep up with Stern, Hella’s Zach Hill. In short, Stern is a trailblazer, not the follower of trends.
Instead, it’s the album’s title that tells you all you need to know about it: Marnie Stern. Too full of warmth and charm to only be about her guitar goddess skills, yet clearly displaying more pride in her chops than her underground peers, the self-titled effort is everything you’d expect from Stern, and more. Naming the record after herself might be telling, because Stern seems to give just a tad more of herself on it. Going the eponymous route implies more self-confidence and strength, which, perhaps counterintuitively, comes from finding restraint and subtlety more than in virtuosity, at least in Stern’s case. It can be hard to readily identify those slight variations when Stern’s go-to moves are so distinctive and overwhelming, but they’re there.
The songs on the latest album are just a little more melodic and better developed, with the singer-songwriter also a little more introspective and vulnerable. Just compare the difference in tone from the opener of her previous outing 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, “Prime”, to Marnie Stern‘s leadoff number, “For Ash”, written in honor of an ex who committed suicide. While “Prime” gets its thrills from its yippy, jagged energy, the new track has more of a sense of dynamics and development with moments in between the riffage that give Stern room to breathe. When you’re aware of the subject matter, Stern’s vocals carry more weight, as her melodic wails convey mourning and catharsis at the same time, building up to Stern’s heartfelt memories: “I miss your smile,” she sings in the eye of the stormy sonics. For once, Stern gets across a sense of deep, poignant feeling that even her standout playing can’t take the spotlight away from.
“Transparency Is the New Mystery” might be an even better measure of Stern’s growth as an artist, as she digs even deeper into her psyche and head on it. Transparency definitely seems to be the operative term here, since there’s more space, at least relatively speaking, between the towering guitars and heavy-hitting beats for her lyrics to shine through. While it’s not hard to hear Stern’s admission of “I’m not enough” as a sign of reflective self-doubt, the song also has its share of self-realization mantras (“In order to see it / You’ve got to believe it / I do”). The clincher is a line that applies as much to whatever Stern is singing about as her maturing aesthetic: “You said me to try patience / I know that I am learning.”
Even though nothing else reaches the emotional register of “For Ash” and “Transparency Is the New Mystery” on the album, Stern is more open and less guarded than before, when the impressive guitar pyrotechnics often overshadowed everything else. That’s not say Stern can’t still break the sound barrier with ease, but it’s just that the other aspects of her craft are starting to catch up. So while Stern’s psychotic cheerleader chants of the past sometimes came off jittery and overcaffeinated, trying to match the pace set by her guitar playing, she sounds more settled channeling and shaping her nervous energy into songs this time around. That might be something Stern picked up from influences you never knew she had. The brisk but buoyant “Nothing Left” bristles like Gang of Four only at double time, while “Risky Biz” has almost a Pixies-ish swing and swagger to it as the finger-tapping moves to the background. “Building a Body” is almost post-punk with lines you can even sing along to, like when she states what her music has suggested all along: “My heart beats too fast.”
If you haven’t felt the shift in tone and mode by the time you get to the closing number, “The Things You Notice”, Stern hammers the point home by going all but slow-mo for probably the first time ever in her catalog. A ballad by her standards, Stern turns her aesthetic inside out, using a wash of feedback as the driving force and her trademark bag o’ tricks to accent it. What’s more, her vocals really move to the fore, especially on the cooed refrain, “I lost and you found”, which makes as good a case as any that Stern has slowed things up and let her guard down. Maybe that explains why she has named the album after herself: Marnie Stern is the sound of Marnie Stern breaking her own mold and growing into herself, be it personally or musically.