Lead single, “For Ash,” pretty neatly encapsulates this approach, bursting out with typically schizo guitar leads and skittering beats, only to abruptly hit the breaks at the minute mark. Here, the track abandons its off-kilter rhythmic hits and wordless hollering and actually falls into a groove. Not surprisingly, this cohesion does not last long. But as the bottom drops out once more, rather than ramping back up to speed, the track falls into an even more epic, spaced out, half-time crunch.
Marnie Stern – “For Ash” – DOWNLOAD MP3
Stern has rarely allowed so much open space into her songs, and the cleaner mix places an emphasis on lyrics and melodies which were previously obscured by ten million other notes per second. This is, however, something of a double-edged sword, as Stern’s voice and lyrics were never her strongest suits. What once were serviceable slices of stream of consciousness are now more direct proclamations of love and loss. “I’m too late/ You’ve got her/ I’m not enough,” Stern sing-speaks through “Transparency Is The New Mystery,” an honest to god alterna-rock power ballad that stops just short of employing the requisite schmaltzy string arrangements. “Risky Biz” picks up the pace, but still sounds tame and restrained, with drummer Zach Hill seemingly falling over himself inside a strict four on the floor beat.
The back half of the album strikes a much better balance between this newfound accessibility and the more outré aspects of Stern’s established sound. Like the aforementioned “For Ash,” high-water marks “Female Guitar Players Are The New Black” and “Cinco De Mayo” combine incessant two-handed tapping with more traditional chugging rock riffs, to great success. “Female Guitar Players” stands out in particular, with the addition of airy vocal harmonies evoking simultaneously the feelings of flying effortlessly and of falling to earth at tremendous speeds.
More focused songwriting and an uptick in production values aside, Marnie Stern is unmistakably the creation of its namesake. Stern succeeds here in the not-necessarily-so-easy task of dialing back her instrumental ferociousness — the quality she was most widely defined by over her last two albums — while still somehow maintaining much of her intensity. Whether this album is just a short breather before the next all out assault, or whether it is an indication that Stern is mellowing for good, we’ll have to wait and see. With albums this solid, I wouldn’t mind if the tenuous peace between her hyperbolic guitar freakouts and my feeble brain lasted a while.