Marnie Stern: This Is It...
Marnie Stern - This Is It & I Am It & You Are It & So Is That & He Is It & She Is It & It Is It & That Is That out now on Kill Rock Stars
While reading up on Marnie Stern I came across an audacious claim in the New York Times. Citing Joanna Newsom and Marnie Stern among others, the writer excitedly stated that virtuosity, once the stuff of total dorkhood, is now back in fashion!! It's COOL to be super-technical!! Alright! So instead of being all punk and throwing my music reviews together in a couple of days, I should start crafting each one through months of effort, gilding every sentence with flowery prosaic language and shit. And I'll still be cool. Whew.
Outrageous, self-important claims about what's "in" and "out" pepper the Times' culture section like MSG on chinese take-out. The editors must suffer from a delusion that a newspaper's job isn't just to write about news - it's also apparently supposed to be defining and imposing the latest tastes 'n trends of the nation, constantly, based on what a couple of hipsters in New York are doing. Honestly, the whole thing makes me want to hurl. This article had a bigger problem, though - it missed the point of what virtuosity is all about. Skillful playing doesn't automatically turn someone into an incredible artist. Think about Dream Theatre! Sure they can play their scales at about a million notes a minute. So what? Does that make their music good? It still sounds like a Super Nintendo soundtrack to me.
Pure virtuosity isn't what makes good music. There are plenty of people out there who can paint really well but spend all their time painting super-real pictures of locomotives, harleys, or cottage scenes. Okay, you've painted a locomotive with total inch by inch accuracy. It's still a boring picture of a locomotive. A virtuoso becomes a real artist when they torque their technical abilities to create indelible pictures and ideas. Take Ron Mueck, who created a completely realistic sculpture of a newborn baby covered in slime, puce-colored umbilical cord still attached, bawling its eyes out, the size of a plumber's van. That's art. A locomotive is not.
So, is This Is It... a giant baby screaming through her birth slime, or a precision-modeled train engine? It's a little of both. No one in their right mind would deny Marnie Stern's technical abilities - I believe that she plays every instrument here, and displays every trick in the book on each - but I wouldn't call her a master. Most of the record screams "holy shit she can play fast," but not necessarily "holy shit this is beautiful." The album is furiously, constantly on the move, leaping from riff to riff. It holds awesome surprises in songs like "The Crippled Jazzer," which unexpectedly breaks into seething complexity about 3 minutes in, and holds steady for a minute and a half before a slow fade. I wanted more of this and less rubix cube guitar combos - too intellectual/philosophical to really soak in as much as I'd like. She certainly doesn't match the immediate emotional response and sense of wonder you (I) get from listening to Joanna Newsom, the Times' other virtuoso. Stern's style is too mathy and agged to have much emotional resonance. Her voice is also in such a high register that she can't deliver the swooping vocals of Newsom (or my other current obsession, Stevie Nicks).
Don't get me wrong, though - if this isn't in it's own league, it's definitely in a very small, selective one. The lyrics have an avante-garde/intellectual tightness, easily soaring to highest, ivory-tower peaks of philosophy, where sages and hermits ponder the great questions about what's real and how to live life. It's a total brain attack, but it stays interesting because she's not just being pretentious. Stern is genuinely trying to say something philosophical, not just trying to sound smart. And although you can't understand everything that she's talking about, the philosophical treatises she's delivering stay interesting even when the distinctions get fuzzy.
Although Stern is part ponderer-of-great-mysteries, she's also part motivational speaker. When she really dives into her huge reserve of "Lets-go!" enthusiasm, she loses me. For example, the chorus of "transformer" has her repeating "The future is yours so fill this part in...The future is yours so fill this part in" over a wailing guitar. Or on "steely," where she sings "I'm hoping it's true ... I'm hoping for you, you, you" Huh?
As long as I'm complaining, let me just say that I have a feeling I'd love watching her play live, but it takes some work to sit down and listen to an entire album end-to-end. Full-on, constant guitar riffing at high high speed really started to grind on me after a half-hour or so of listening.
Even when "This is it..." evokes tweeking cheerleaders, it's still totally mixtape-worthy. On "Roads? Where We're Going We Don't Need Roads," the play between lead-singer Marnie and the chirping chorus of Marnies in the background crying "ooh-ah-ooh-ooh-ah" conjures up the picture of a studio full of her, each clone playing a different instrument, all jamming in time. And in "Vault", the album reaches true bliss, a resonant peak where the intellectual buildup of the record meshes with an emotional side that's so slippery elsewhere. It's as huge and overblown as Journey, less all the cheeze. Every time I've heard this song I've wanted to drop whatever else I'm doing and just listen.
Give Marnie Sterns a valium and you might get the kind of thing sane rock bands play. But this is not music for the sane among us.
- Ben Phelps-Rohrs