The Golden Mean:
Marnie Stern’s New Pop
“For some reason, the routes that we’ve taken on this tour, we’ve seen different stuff than we usually see,” Marnie Stern remarks as she passed through Oregon. “Maybe because we used to drive at night, but I can’t figure out why this is so much more scenic. GPS has been taking us on really scenic routes. I think it’s taking us the long way, but it looks pretty nice.”
In the wake of the release of her fourth LP, The Chronicles of Marnia, these new views seem appropriate. The sound has shifted. It’s still easily recognizable as Marnie Stern’s trademark heavy, pop-minded math-rock. But she’s cleaned up drastically in terms of production. Tracks upon tracks were shed. And she’s singing – as opposed to shouting – a lot more.
Her climb to the indie-rock pedestal on which she stands now hasn’t been traditional. Her first LP, In Advance of the Broken Arm, was her first real foray into music, period. Unlike many of her peers, music was a later-in-life endeavor for Stern. It’s been eight years since, but the level of guitar mastery she’s achieved and the intensity of the following she’s gathered – much of which is driven by her signature intricate finger-tapping style – is impressive.
The critical accolades shouldn’t be attributed only to Stern’s shredding, though. Drummer Zach Hill, who is similarly revered as a modern-day icon of his instrument, has been a big part of Stern’s winning combination – until now.
The setup has changed significantly for Marnia. Hill and Stern share a love for hyperactive, meticulously jam-packed rock ‘n’ roll, but here, Oneida player (and solo artist) Kid Millions handles the percussion pounding, and is contained in comparison. Additionally, the LP was recorded more professionally than its predecessors, this time at Rare Book Room in New York. These two major changes resulted in a slicker, glossier feel with fewer layers of tracks – something neither Stern nor her fans are accustomed to.
“Noonan,” for one, sticks out. It’s jumpy in a happy, danceable way, and lacks the powerful guitar work Stern is known for.
“I wouldn’t have put that on the record, but, you know, the producer says yes, then you’ll talk about it a little and I just sort of went with it. We haven’t been playing that one live,” she says, then laughs. “I feel like in that song you’re going to a hoe-down to dance a little ditty or something.”
The high-octave “oohs” of “Immortals” are a fresh motif, but it’s still got the tough-as-nails grit: “I’ll come and find you,” she threatens. The highlight, though, is a softly swaying chorus: “All my hero’s bold ideas, well they have gone/ Broken up and split into a thousand songs/ Their shapes could make it clearest who I’d want to be/ And the dangerous, it turned other things.”
Still, the crowd response has been “great,” she reassures.
“You can tell the people that are waiting on the older songs but…” she trails off. “[The new songs are] not as polished live.”
“Year of the Glad,” the album opener, makes up in piercing vocals what it’s missing in assaulting guitar work. (And there’s still a little section of the latter toward the tail-end.) “Nothing is Easy” showcases Stern’s trademark fast-paced finger-work – albeit lightly, and somewhat secondary to the vocals. Both are among the tracks Stern says she’s happiest with, and it’s easy to imagine how powerful and pummeling they might sound when played live.
Stern seems to shrug when she says, “There are a couple people who write, ‘I really like your energy on the older stuff,’ but, you know, you can’t please everyone!”
Some diehard followers will take issue with the newfound sheen of Marnia. But it’s not as if she has abandoned finger-tapping or lost the fervor with which she performs. And, like the albums before it, Marnia is a product of where Stern is both personally and musically. So naturally, some things have changed, and likely for the better. It sounds like she’s reached a simultaneously serene and self-assured middle ground.
Here last full-length was partially guided by learning of the suicide of a former boyfriend who, in her start, had been her primary champion. “For Ash” was its principle tribute. Three years later, Stern has transitioned into a different mental space.
She’s gained a sort of confidence that allows for risk-taking. She’s at ease with trying new things, with little regard for their chances of success or failure. She’s been described as a perfectionist, and very much hands-on, and on Marnia it’s obvious she’s loosened her grip. But she doesn’t seem regretful, but it’s not ambivalence either.
That sentiment resonates in Marnia’s lyrical content, especially on “Proof of Life.” Both extremes of the perpetually swinging pendulum of self-perception are shown. Stern sings, “I am nothing/ I am no one,” but later flips: “I am something/ I am someone.”
“It’s the tear between both worlds,” she explains.
Stern has claimed publicly she’s not a singer, but on that same track, when her vocals calm and are singled out, the wispy tone is almost calming. “All my life is based on fantasy/ And all the gods have stopped talking to me.” It’s a pretty depressing revelation, but the way Stern conveys it somehow shifts the melancholy to acceptance. And letting go can be quite a relief.
It appears she’s lightened up in her personal life, too. In the lead-up to the release of Marnia, Stern’s label Kill Rock Stars announced a contest to win a date with her. There were some requirements: Must love Law & Order, cannot be a began, must live in New York City. A couple qualifications aside, however, the offer was open to virtually anyone. And it wasn’t a joke.
“I liked one of the guys and I’m going back on some more dates with him, so that’s exciting,” Stern reports.
In the past Stern hasn’t had much luck dating, she admits, and was recently single when her label and publicist suggested the matchmaking promotion. While such a gimmick might seem on par with Marnia’s wider appeal – as if she’s trying to expand her fanbase – it’s not really accurate to make that correlation. Stern’s pulled stunts like this before. Shortly after the release of 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, Stern set up a kissing booth at a couple of her shows, reportedly to raise money to pay a speeding ticket. Also, let’s not forget: the album name in itself was also kind of a gimmick.
Another result of the solid, satisfied ground she’s now atop is the promise of something far more adventurous than a glossier release: a concept album.
“Just something to make the brain work a little bit harder,” she explains. “These projects are so fun, but I tend to start it and it gets too complicated and hard to execute, and there’s nothing worse than a shitty concept album. That’s what I would like to do [in the future], ideally.”
And what would be the subject?
“I always start trying to think of stuff. I was going to do a whole thing, a metaphor about maps. It doesn’t matter,” she says, and her enthusiasm dwindles. “I had a whole bunch of ideas but it’s just hard to make them happen.”
Maybe it’s not a perfect middle ground. She says she can’t listen to the recordings of her albums until years after. She might cringe when she does. But her attitude gives the impression that she’s accepted that possibility. After all, Marnia’s grand finale, “Hell Yes,” fades out like a sigh of relief: “All I’ve got is time,” she sings.
Photo by Michael Benabib.