With the benefit of hindsight, the noughties look like a golden age of math rock. Sandwiched between early post-hardcore experiments and today’s internet-inspired fusions was an era of unparalleled, hyper-eclectic excellence. The list of seminal acts is endless—Hella, TTNG, Tera Melos, Giraffes? Giraffes!, Piglet and literally countless others. The nebulous genre coalesced from strands of post-rock, jazz and emo to become a mercurial sound that could be by turns emotive, befuddling and downright electrifying.
Marnie Stern’s oeuvre is best encapsulated by the latter. The New York guitarist and vocalist possesses an infectious, smile-plastered enthusiasm, in contrast to the willful abstractions of many of her peers. She was a cornerstone of the noughties and early-10s math rock landscape, releasing records on the esteemed Kill Rock Stars label, collaborating with Hella and Death Grips’ Zach Hill and frequently getting placed on lists of best guitarists in the world.
This latter point is important. Stern is a straight-up shredder whose playing style errs closer to the joyous fireworks of someone like Eddie Van Halen than she does any knotty, noisy experimentalists. That she happened to run in underground circles is by-the-by—there was always a great pop song buried within the chaos of her music. This is more visible than ever on The Comeback Kid. With her fifth and (you guessed it) comeback album, Stern has continued to chip away some of the raw spikiness of her early releases in service of a dozen stellar math pop tracks that might be (:whispers:) her strongest body of work yet.
It has to be noted that the absence of Zach Hill has greatly aided this sense of comparable chill. His drumming on Stern’s first three albums was, as always, so dominant that he inevitably helped define its shape. His jettisoning on 2013’s The Chronicles Of Marnia made for a more approachable sound, whilst helping bring Stern’s songwriting to the fore. The Comeback Kid continues this subtly more lucid approach. Stern’s ecstatic manner may have become a touch more elegant with age, but this lightning-paced collection of colorful and vibrant tracks sacrifices none of the thrills Stern alone is capable of providing.
Her philosophy is outlined immediately. The album’s first line is “I can’t keep on moving backwards,” repeated in Stern’s exhilarating yelp. Following track “Believing Is Seeing” continues this self-referential trend by asking over and over again “what if I add this?” The track backs up her point by being as unpredictable as it is meticulously arranged. The Comeback Kid’s artwork is another example of this sharp breaking of the fourth wall. A sketchbook-style drawing of a guitar shooting off into the cosmos, its sincere repurposing of such a classic rock and roll image epitomizes Stern’s endearingly metamodern tone.
In terms of evolution, several tracks dart off into new directions for Stern. “Til It’s Over” is as straightforward as her guitar-playing has ever been, whilst sacrificing none of her energy or personality. There’s also an expected but brilliant mid-album cover of Ennio Morricone’s “Il Girotondo Della Note.” It’s not likely a comparison many would have made prior to this album’s release, but Stern’s guitar tone isn’t a million miles off from those used in Morricone’s western scores, so the homage ends up feeling surprisingly intuitive.
The Comeback Kid is concise and smartly avoids overstaying its welcome. Like any ecstasy-inducing intoxicant, overindulgence turns into diminishing returns. However, across the course of its effervescent runtime, Stern’s fabulous return induces streams of images comparable to its cover art—reams of color, intense light and a transcendence that can only come from the vista of a singular musician gleefully shredding the living shit out of their instrument.
Label: Joyful Noise
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