Editors' pick

Marnie Stern

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Editorial Review

‘Chronicles’ shows Stern’s silly side
By Christopher Kompanek
Friday, May 3, 2013

Guitarist Marnie Stern is known for her finger tapping style, using both hands on the frets to create a flurry of notes and a wall of sound. She picked up the technique, a cornerstone of her first three albums, from a video of Don Caballero guitarist, Ian Williams.

“I saw a few seconds and noticed Ian had both hands on the neck of his guitar. Then I started fiddling around doing it, not really knowing what I was doing,” Stern recalls. The experimenting continued until she was 30 and landed a record deal with Kill Rock Stars. Her debut album, “In Advance of the Broken Arm,” was released in 2007.

“At the beginning, I was listening to much more palatable indie rock like Sleater Kinney, Elliott Smith, Built to Spill and bands like that,” Stern says. “Then I started digging more and listened to a ton of instrumental bands.”

As Stern explored her sound, she became increasingly influenced by such noise--rock bands as Lightning Bolt, Ruins and Erase Errata. She even went through an instrumental phase spurred by hearing experimental duo Hella. (Hella drummer Zach Hill was Stern’s main collaborator and co--producer on her first three albums.)

“It was a pivotal point for me,” says Stern, 37. “I remember getting so excited and thought it was one of the craziest things. It was just two people, but they were doing so much.”

But Stern made a conscious effort not to learn the songs of the bands she loved out of fear of sounding like them. “I wanted to sound like me,” she says, “so I just messed around. It took years of fiddling around to find a couple staples that sounded like myself.”

Stern’s instrumental period lasted only about six months but shaped how she composed her songs. The lead--in bars on “Vibrational Match,” the opening track on “Broken Arm,” don’t set up a melodic structure so much as they break down the listener’s expectation for one to emerge.

Her second album, 2008’s “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,” is as bursting with frenzied expression as its title suggests. On the track “Prime,” Stern matches Hill’s drums beat for beat in intensity as she repeatedly screams, “Get onto your knees defenders.”

For her 2010 self--titled album, Stern let more melody shine through the screams. Her voice has a playful lilt, not unlike that of Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki, whom Stern considers an influence.

That lilt also is obvious in Stern’s speaking voice. She sounds like an excited teenager when talking about her tour, which is informally titled “Who Gives a Hoot.” It’s in support of Stern’s fourth album, “The Chronicles of Marnia,” whose title was chosen more for its play on words than as a homage to the C.S. Lewis novels. “It was sort of a silly title,” Stern admits, but the name is rooted in a new philosophy: “We are really trying not to give a hoot. It’s made us more laid--back.”

The new album has a more streamlined sound. Working with producer Nicolas Vernhes, Stern has peeled back layers of guitar to reveal driving riffs. Previously, she would record demos and then overdub the band. “This time we pretty much started from scratch,” she says. “I think that’s why it sounds a little bit cleaner and softer.”

There’s still plenty of shredding, but the songs leave space for other components to stand out. “Nothing Is Easy” opens with one of Stern’s arpeggiated blasts but is slowed by a mellow chorus in the vein of Built to Spill. The two are bridged by a rhythmic vocal grunt and frenzied drumming that pulses beneath but doesn’t overtake the sonic landscape.

“The melodic stuff has always been in there,” Stern says. “It’s just been mixed in with a bunch of other stuff. Now it’s more upfront, and the dissonant sounds fade away.”

The guitar is everything for Marnie Stern. But she's no posturing six-string hero: The intertwining, multilayered guitar tracks on her eponymous third album (link) come across like burnished steel -- and gleam with a unique ferocity. Topped with her caterwauling vocals and presented with metallic bass and drum accompaniment, the result is her most focused, cohesive work.

Stern's previous records were original, occasionally inspiring efforts that were mostly smothered by her startling technique (including finger-tapping and . . . just YouTube her). Her latest, however, represents a leap forward in songwriting and vision.

What the listener gets are sparkling, tumbling songs such as "Nothing Left," which opens with an ominous riff, adds an off-kilter slashing rhythm section and leaps into an infectious fist-pump chant before cascading into a brilliant chorus that contains an actual hook. Similar stuff abounds.

Some have cast the blond, cosmically inclined Stern as a kind of female Hendrix, and songs such as "Building a Body" and "Transparency Is the New Mystery" suggest a kinship. But it's in her arranging savvy -- placing multiple guitar tracks next to each other, popping them in and out of the aural widescreen -- where Jimi can be felt.

And the one-two punch of "Female Guitar Players Are the New Black" and "Gimmie" proves she hasn't lost any of the headbanging, left-field indie snarl that has gained her a small but dedicated following.

--Patrick Foster, Oct. 2010