The wordy title of Marnie Stern’s last record breathlessly said it all: 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. That album was a continuation of the frenzied assault of her debut; Stern has been an artist whose music is frenetic in every sense of the word. On her latest self-titled offering, Stern’s hyperactive approach hasn’t been turned down one bit. She has however found new ways to alter and refine her sound while keeping her unmistakable energy intact.
If there is a noticeable downshift, it’s in Stern’s vocals; Stern quite literally gives herself breathing room on this album, allowing space between one line and the next. As a result, the melodies are much easier to decipher than they were on This is It… or her debut, and Stern doesn’t come off nearly as abrasive. She has all but backed away from the unremitting yelp that defined her first two records. That yelp suited her well – This is It… is an excellent album – but the adjustment will likely make her latest offering more palatable to new listeners. In spite of what could be seen as a slight move to the middle, this is still resolutely a Marnie Stern album and it would be hard to mistake it for anything but.
Replacing the lean sound of her prior albums, thick, distorted rhythm guitars are piled on, creating a dense foundation for Stern’s newfound directness. Stern purposefully blends her restless, inimitable finger-tapping into the mix this time out. Some enthusiasts may miss some of the trademarks of her earlier work, but they’re swapped for equally invigorating substitutes. Amidst the vocal adjustments and thicker sound, drummer Zach Hill’s violent, but precise clatter is as tremendous as ever. Hill shifts from stomping rhythms to manic beats at an amazing pace; he’s the perfect anchor for the album’s disciplined commotion. Stern claims that much of the record was written and recorded during a particularly challenging time in her life. In interviews, she has explained that “For Ash” and “Cinco de Mayo” were written about an ex-boyfriend who committed suicide. Writing these songs was a key in helping her let go. In working through these issues out loud, she manages to take the morose subject matter and transform it into a vital catharsis.
Stern’s made it clear that she doesn’t want to just be seen as an heir to Sleater-Kinney, slapped with the limiting ‘woman that rocks’ tag. It’s evident that her songs are an extension of herself, there’s no mere posturing involved and the commitment she has to her craft is evident, from every swiftly changing note. As a listener, the unrestrained enthusiasm can all be a bit overwhelming. The album barely tops the half-hour mark and I can still feel exhausted when it’s over, but that certainly doesn’t stop me from coming back for more.