Marnie Stern - The Chronicles of Marnia
Inspirational album an exercise in restraint from maximalist guitarist
(Kill Rock Stars)
Marnie Stern’s 2007 debut In Advance of the Broken Arm was the best thing to happen to indie rock in yonks. In a milieu that all too often venerated dour beardedness and/or half-arsed underachievement, here was someone well-versed in the righteous fretboard-fu of Van Halen, bringing unbridled positivity and wild energy to the table.
Her tunes were smart, super-catchy balls of multi-tracked guitar lightning, a blend of tech-metal without anger, bubblegum without dumbness and math-rock without ego. If anything, the follow-up (the ludicrously long title of which would shatter my word count) went one better, one brighter, one faster. The eponymous third collection, though strong, marked a shift in mood – darker, more contemplative, less self-assured.
Here, producer Nicolas Vernhes has stripped back Stern’s sound – her interlocking fractal guitar approach minimised, her voice foregrounded, exposed. By anyone else’s standards, Chronicles is pretty full-on, but for the maximalist Stern it’s an exercise in restraint. New drummer Kid Millions, is a more measured player than Stern’s previous foil Zach Hill, and thus perfect for this less scattershot approach.
Opener ‘Year of the Glad’ is a neat encapsulation – skeletal sound, lithe but pummelling riffs and sweet, painfully brittle vocal melodies. Though sometimes audibly uncertain, Stern’s vocals are playful throughout the album – monkey chatter, train-whistle whoop, a gorgeous multi-tracked chorus on ‘Still Moving’ and even, bizarrely, a Nottinghamshire accent during the intro to ‘Immortals’. But her guitar’s still the star, whether it’s bringing frenetic tapping, juddering riffs, spidery power pop, delicate introspection or big-rock breakdowns.
The Chronicles of Marnia has sombre moments, but with ten tracks in 30 minutes, there’s little time to wallow. Ultimately, it ends on a positive – or positively giddy – note or 16, in a flurry of incandescent guitars and inspirational exhortations. Still the best thing to happen to indie rock in yonks.