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Reviews: Marnie Stern's The Chronicles of Marnia

Marnie Stern's The Chronicles of Marnia

Each Marnie Stern record has been shorter than its predecessor. 2007’s In Advance of the Broken Arm clocked in at 44:33, 2008’s This Is It… chopped its total down to 41:07, 2010’s masterful Marnie Stern lasted 33:58, and 2013’s The Chronicles of Marnia is a scant 32:46. Unless Andy Mueller of OhioGirl designed the album artwork, total running time isn’t something I pay attention to, but in this case it helped support a related observation: each successive Marnie Stern record has felt exponentially shorter.

I’d love to further substantiate that claim with a “notes per minute” statistic, since Stern’s maximalist approach has been similarly toned down over time, but unfortunately, rock criticism hasn’t embraced advanced statistics like baseball or hockey. It would soften the blow of a somewhat backhanded compliment—it’s gotten considerably easier to listen to Marnie Stern’s music. I could appreciate her debut, since the combination of Van Halen-on-speed finger-tapping, enthusiastic cheerleader vocals, and Zach Hill’s frenetic drumming was (and still is) unique. But aside from the comparatively straightforward “Every Single Line Means Something” and a few other tracks, its excesses were exhausting. I stayed with In Advance of the Broken Arm for two reasons: first, it was hard to deny the charismatic charge of her aesthetic; second, the occasional switch to chunky chords was the perfect elixir to the tapping barrage. This Is It… was a step in the right direction, offering tighter arrangements (“The Crippled Jazzer”) and better vocal hooks (“Ruler”), but I still only wanted an EP-length sampling of its tracks. That changed with Marnie Stern, a front-to-back success driven by deeply personal, emotional songwriting (“Transparency Is the New Mystery”) and even more chord-based riffs (“Gimme”). Hell, “The Things You Notice” is even a love ballad!

This history lesson leads me to another potential backhanded compliment about The Chronicles of Marnia: for the first time, a Marnie Stern album has left me wanting more. With new drummer Kid Millions slowing tempos and taking less of a splatter-painting approach to percussion, Stern peeling back layers of guitar, and new producer Nicholas Vernhes putting greater emphasis on Stern’s vocals, it speeds by, feeling every bit as short as its 32:46 runtime. There’s nothing exhausting about Marnia. It’s a pop album, or as close to a pop album as Stern will likely release. Its strangest elements are Stern’s background vocals, like the siren calls of “You Don’t Turn Down” or the “oh-ee-ee-oh” hook of “Year of the Glad,” and those are weirdly infectious. Every time I reach its end, I expect two or three more songs to suddenly appear. It’s disappointing when they don’t.

From an outside perspective, this shift toward the pop terrain of sparser arrangements and bigger hooks could be read as betraying Stern’s maximalist core. I see an alternate route to Marnia’s pop focus—with each release, her personality has come into clearer view, and the gradual receding of the finger-tapped storm has allowed this change to occur. It was simultaneously her sonic signature and a defense mechanism, covering for her self-doubt. “The Things You Notice” was a literal revelation; without Hill’s presence, Stern’s surprisingly hopeful sentiment takes center stage. (I should have seen it coming with her irony-free cover of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”) There’s something profoundly endearing about Stern’s autobiographical tendencies—she’s desperate to succeed on her terms. Like a well-made sports drama, I find myself cheering for the protagonist. (Still won’t wear a “Win Marnie Win” shirt, though.) No wonder why she made a Rocky-themed video.

This doubt-conquering trend is amplified on the self-motivational Marnia. It either recognizes her second-act hurdles or searches for the intestinal fortitude to overcome them. She pairs the album’s most fist-pumping riff with “I am losing hope in my body” on “You Don’t Turn Down,” pleads “Don’t you want to be somebody?” on “Noonan,” rolls the title of “Nothing Is Easy” over and over, declares that “Bittersweet you’ve got to go” on the title track, and affirms “Down and deep I’ll never stop / Won’t give this thing, won’t give it up” in the triumphant closer “Hell Yes.” The most pivotal track is the dramatic, piano-laced “Proof of Life,” which looks to the heavens for a sign, but knows its shift from “I am nothing / I am no one” to “I am something / I am someone” can only come from within. Who knows if she would have come to that conclusion without abandoning the safety net of maximalist finger-tapping.

Returning to potentially backhanded compliment number two, the fact that The Chronicles of Marnia leaves me wanting more is both confirmation of her artistic evolution and the new LP’s lone demerit. I won’t deny that it pales slightly to Marnie Stern, which left me fully satiated with only a minute and twelve seconds of additional runtime (and approximately 58% more notes). But offering a lighter, more inviting companion to that album isn’t a bad thing. Wanting more isn’t a bad thing, especially when three albums ago, I routinely opted for less. I stuck with In Advance of the Broken Arm and This Is It… on the chance that Stern would take this exact course. Now that she has, it’s a relief to simply enjoy the songs without speculating where her sound might be two albums from now. Don’t know, don’t care—I’m in regardless. Maybe she’ll return to her maximalist roots with renewed focus, maybe she’ll strip down the last vestiges of that sound. All I know is that some variation of a self-titled album—Marnie Stern’s Private Parts, perhaps—will remain incredibly appropriate, since her personality will undoubtedly shine through whichever artistic direction she chooses.

2010 Year-End Wrap Up Part 1: The Album Lists

First of all, you can view my top twenty of albums of the year over here.

That’s the first and most important feature of New Artillery’s year-end wrap-up, but it’s certainly not the only one. This post also covers the honorable mentions and older breakthrough albums. Some point this week I'll polish off my two CD 2010 mix, my favorite live performance list, and (quite possibly) a rambling post of statistical analysis and meta-commentary on my year of listening. First, let's start with the honorable mentions.

Honorable mentions for 2010

The Acorn’s No Ghost
The Depreciation Guild’s Spirit Youth
Emeralds’ Does It Look Like I’m Here
Four Tet’s There Is Love in You
Hoquiam’s Hoquiam
Damien Jurado’s Saint Bartlett
Killing Joke’s In Excelsis EP and Absolute Dissent
The Radio Dept.’s Clinging to a Scheme
Superchunk’s Majesty Shredding
Team Ghost’s Celebrate What You Can’t See EP
The Twilight Sad’s The Wrong Car EP
Warpaint’s The Fool

You will hear more about a few of those albums as I continue to plug away at full-length reviews.

Older Albums That Hit Me in 2010

The A.V. Club uses the word “discovered” in their similarly themed article, but in many of these cases, I knew about or had even heard these albums prior to this year, but they simply didn’t click until now. Longer reviews linked when available.

Faust’s Faust IV: There’s a larger dialogue to be had in terms of how much 1970s German music I checked out in 2010, but Faust’s Faust IV might be the best of it. These tricksters subvert expectations at every turn, from the noisy drift of “Krautrock” to the weirdo mod strumming of “The Sad Skinhead,” from the weightless dreaming of “Jennifer” to the off-kilter sax of “Giggy Smile.” I picked up Faust So Far a few months later, but kept coming back to Faust IV trying to make sense out of it.

Klaus Schulze’s Trancefer: The stars aligned for Klaus Schulze this year: I got into a few contemporary artists who are influenced by his work (Emeralds, Oneohtrix Point Never), I kept running into his LPs up at Mystery Train, and the tense electronic epics on Trancefer soundtracked a few memorable trips into Boston. Whether Trancefer ranks highly among his stacks of solo albums is beyond me, but it made for a solid introduction.

Sonic Youth’s EVOL and Murray Street: I won’t add to the word count apocalypse that was Sonic Youth Discographied, but these two albums are the ones that I most enjoyed getting to know.

The For Carnation’s The For Carnation: This quietly absorbing dose of post-rock storytelling never strayed far from my turntable, but its best application was during late summer evenings. With the windows open and the sound of crickets filtering in, I’d sit and wonder why Brian McMahan hadn’t recorded anything in a decade when this album is so damned good.

Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction: I had grand schemes of becoming informed on jazz at the beginning of the year, but soon that took a backseat to my usual diet of guitar rock. The primary exception was Science Fiction, an album full of surprises that pushed against what I expected from Ornette Coleman and yet couldn’t have come from anyone else.

Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One: Want the reality of The Haul? I bought this album back in March, listened to it immediately, loved it, wondered why I hadn’t spent time with it earlier, tried writing about it, kept listening to it, tried writing about it again, and kept listening to it. The embryonic entry is still sitting at 156 words in my massive .doc for the project (over 41,000 words), but my desire to finish it isn’t quite up to my need to get it right. Too often I just end up listening to “We’re an American Band” over and over, hoping to lose myself in the dreamy fuzz.

Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues: Similar to Yo La Tengo, I’d heard and enjoyed Will Oldham’s music before (especially I See a Darkness), but hadn’t ventured to his Palace-era albums. I corrected that mistake to a certain degree this year, getting Viva Last Blues in the same trip to Mystery Train as I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, but every time I listen to it, I feel like I need another spin to wrap my head around it. I’ve already booked Oldham for Discographied next year.

Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight: Owing mostly to my wife’s affection for the bearded Scottish indie rockers, I saw Frightened Rabbit twice this year. I’d given their material a cursory spin in years past, but after “The Modern Leper” clicked, I spent more time with The Midnight Organ Fight and learned that it’s one of the finest break-up albums of the last decade, filled with crowd-pleasing stompers, open wounds, and tons of self-deprecating wit.

Burial’s Burial: If you can believe it, I had pretty much missed the boat on dubstep. Grabbing Burial back in January helped clue me in. I’ve even kept going back to it rather than switching to its acclaimed follow-up, Untrue.

Six Recent Releases

2008 has been a disappointment musically, something I’ve noticed as I’ve struggled to cull together twenty solid candidates for my usual year-end list. I’ve tried my best to stay on top of things, as documented by this list of some of the albums I’ve checked out recently, but it’s hard to say whether many of these will make the final list.

The picture disc cover for ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's Festival Thyme EP

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - Festival Thyme EP: To say that the Trail of Dead had lost the plot since 2002’s excellent Source Tags & Codes would be a vast understatement. I remember listening to Worlds Apart and thinking “This has to click at some point, right?” before recognizing that it had three good songs, tops, and suffered from an overblown rock opera fetish. (Is there any other kind of rock opera fetish?) I don’t think I’ve ever heard So Divided in its entirety; simply nothing that I’ve heard from that record appealed to me in the slightest, not even the cred-grab of the Guided by Voices cover. Yet I checked out the ill-titled Festival Thyme EP out of morbid curiosity and was marginally encouraged by the results. They’re still appropriating too much 1970s prog-rock without the requisite spirit of adventure or the sense of danger of their own early material, but at least these songs have melodies and some forward momentum. “Bells of Creation” backed with “Inland Sea” would make a good single, although the four-song picture disc ten-inch is a reasonable alternative if you’re fond of Warcraft. It’s no surprise that the nasal whine of Conrad Keely has wholly supplanted the evil Bono pipes of Jason Reece and the faux-British sneer of former bassist Neil Busch, but I still long for those other voices. Festival Thyme is a minor step in the right direction, but I don’t know if they’ll ever equal the combination of melodic indie rock and barely controlled abandon from their self-titled debut, Madonna, and Source Tags & Codes.

Aidan Baker & Tim Hecker's Fantasma Parastasie

Aidan Baker & Tim Hecker - Fantasma Parastasie: Nadja’s Radiance of Shadows made my top twenty list for 2007, but none of their 2008 releases (that I’ve heard, at least) has equaled the scope or depth of that release. It’s not for lack of trying, with eight releases coming out during this calendar year (including two following their strange penchant for re-recording their old albums), but Radiance of Shadows’ doom-metal Codeine approach still lingers with me. As if those eight releases weren’t enough, Nadja guitarist Aidan Baker also collaborated with fellow Canadian Tim Hecker for Fantasma Parastasie, which combines the electronic drones of Hecker’s excellent 2006 album Harmony in Ultraviolet with Baker’s guitar feedback to great effect. There are hints of Nadja’s signature menace on “Skeletal Dane,” but the crushing waves of distortion that highlight Thaumogenesis and Radiance of Shadows are nowhere to be found. The balance between Baker and Hecker is remarkable; some beautiful moments peak out from the haze of Baker’s guitar during “Dream of the Nightmare” and “Auditory Spirits.” It’s a solid listen, but whether it measures up to the evocative thunder of Radiance of Shadows has yet to be determined.

Benoit Pioulard's Temper

Benoît Pioulard - Temper: I fully expected this album to be one of my favorites of the year, given my ongoing fondness for his 2006 album Précis, but I keep coming away from it feeling underwhelmed. Sure, “Brown Bess” and “The Loom Pedal” equal the previous album’s highlights (“Triggering Back,” “Sous La Plage” and “Ash into the Sky”), but the novelty of his formula—bedroom singer/songwriter material treated with IDM textures alternating with sound collages—isn’t delivering the same punch this time around, despite more fleshed-out structures for the “real” songs. It’s still plausible that I’ll put it on and it’ll hit me differently, but I’m beginning to doubt the likelihood of that happening. Don’t let this stop you from picking up the 2LP set of Précis and Temper, which invalidated my begrudging CD purchase of the former upon its release.

Lukestar's Lake Toba

Lukestar - Lake Toba: I heard “White Shade” on the Flameshovel site and then tracked down their web site since I couldn’t determine if it was a male vocalist or not from my brief, verse-only spin. After finding their astonishing promotional photo (there’s a dead ringer for Jim Carrey in this band, for starters) and confirming my suspicion of “high-pitched male vocalist,” I watched the video for “White Shade” on YouTube and tracked down the Norwegian group's newest album. I can’t say that I understand the post-rock tag that’s floating around in reviews and press clippings, since they’re basically doing catchy, slightly off-kilter indie rock with falsetto vocals—i.e., something that fits in perfectly on Flameshovel, their American label. Closer “Peregrin” and the aforementioned “White Shade” are highlights, but the falsetto wears thin on some of the poppier tracks.

Pocahaunted's Chains

Pocahaunted - Chains: I keep wavering on whether I enjoy the droning, pseudo-Sioux psych-chants of Pocahaunted or whether I simply lose focus after fifteen minutes (approximately a song and a half) of Chains and tune it out. Maybe that has to do with my preference of “The Weight” and “No More Women” over the final two songs on the album, but the intensity of the former and the drifting swells of the latter are compelling enough. The title track is a vague cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” and while I prefer the Silkworm’s gang-vocals version, I’m impressed that I could recognize the original song—its bass line, at least—underneath all the gauze. I don’t have enough of a penchant for psych-rock to explore Pocahaunted’s growing discography or the recreational drug habit to fully appreciate it, but Chains is a good sampler for anyone who can stomach the idea of listening to “The Olsen twins of drone.”

Marnie Stern's This Is It...

Marnie Stern - This Is It and I Am It…: I view making it through almost all of this record without itching to stop it—after several failed attempts—as a monumental achievement, one I’m unlikely to repeat. This Is It… is nowhere near as spazzy or Deerhoof-derived as her debut, which is a huge step in the right direction, but Stern’s still a highly idiosyncratic artist and too many of those idiosyncrasies irk the hell out of me. She’s made significant progress with her vocal melodies, but it’s easy to overdose on chirpy exuberance. Similar to my dreams of In Advance of the Broken Arm magically reappearing as a four-song EP, I’ll condense This Is It… to “Ruler,” “Transformer,” “The Crippled Jazzer,” “The Package Is Wrapped,” and the verses of “The Devil Is in the Details.” I can’t bring myself to say that I’d prefer an album of comparably more straightforward songs like “Every Single Line Means Something,” since I can appreciate what Stern’s doing in the songs I didn’t mention, but it’s a clear case of appreciation trumping enjoyment. And since I’m not getting paid to review records, I’ll stick with enjoyment and the pared-down LPs.