When “For Ash” hit the blogs a couple months back, folks (rightfully) went apeshit. The lead track from Marnie Stern’s new self-titled record was brash and lifting; immediately, it was recognizable as the boldest recording the virtuosic guitarist and songwriter had put to tape in her young career. That’s saying something: Stern’s music is nothing if not consistently bold. The story behind “For Ash” is a tragic one involving a former boyfriend’s suicide. But rather than dwell in sadness, the song transcends it; actually, it transcends damn near everything. It’s breathtakingly huge. It’s soulful. In my book, it’s a top contender for Song of the Year.
Perhaps expectedly, nothing else on the largely monochromatic Marnie Stern approximates the mad emotional fury of “For Ash.” The album is packed with the same manic finger-tapping guitar intensity and the same soaring, screeching vocal tendencies that have characterized Stern’s last two releases, 2007’s In Advance of the Broken Arm and the following year’s This is It and I Am It and You Are It (and so on and so on). It’s not the broadened musical exploration some might have hoped for, but it’s no letdown, either.
“In order to see it/ You’ve got to believe it/ I do,” coos Stern on the relatively tranquil “Transparency is the New Mystery.” One thing about Marnie Stern: she absolutely believes in everything she does. She moves unapologetically forward with guns (and guitars) blazing; in the past, it’s been both her biggest asset and her Achilles’ heel. Her confidence has inspired some great moments of musical power, but rarely has it allowed space for self-reflection. Marnie Stern veers as close to intimacy as her work has ever come. It’s found in the mesmeric peak-valley chord changes of “For Ash,” and in lyrics that approach the confessional: “I’ve got something in my soul/ Pushing me to hold on to the pain,” she admits in the galloping “Risky Biz.” The album also finds Stern’s vocals pushed adamantly to the front; they’re close, more personal (and decipherable!) than ever.
But don’t misconstrue my words. The Softer Side of Marnie Stern this ain’t. “Female Guitar Players Are the New Black” puts Stern’s guitar heroics on display (seriously, Eddie Van Halen is sobbing in a corner somewhere), while the airy, succulent “Cinco de Mayo” comes as close to the towering theatrics of “For Ash” as any other song on the record. Throughout, Stern’s co-conspirators deliver the hard-hitting goods: Zach Hill, for one, hasn’t sounded this fucking wired since Hella’s Hold Your Horse Is. Of course, it’s not all roses. “Building a Body” is a confused meld of sinewy post-punk jabs and stadium-rock bombast that doesn’t quite come together as it could, and album closer “The Things You Notice” is curiously limp.
As a whole, though, Marnie Stern is a fine continuation of the songwriter’s canon. If anything, the album proves beyond a doubt that Stern must be regarded as that: a songwriter, not only a technical genius. Still, those time signature-obsessed math rockers will delight in her phrasings, while those with a taste for the intimate will no doubt grimace at the hyper energy. What both of those groups are missing, however, is that one hand feeds the other. More and more, Stern seems to be getting it, too.