CMU Artists Of The Year 2010 – #9: Marnie Stern

It’s not something I find very easy to admit, but I didn’t really like Marnie Stern’s second album – ‘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’ – all that much. I didn’t dislike it, but it never connected with me in the same way her debut, ‘In Advance Of The Broken Arm’, did.

I loved that album (still do), and played it over and over and over again. But, much like I currently feel about the Sleigh Bells’ debut, I always feared that ‘In Advance’ had such a distinct and unique sound that it would be too difficult for Stern to progress with her songwriting, within the boundaries she’d imposed on herself, on subsequent albums. And ‘This Is It…’ seemed to confirm that fear, though it’s something I’ve never really wanted to face up to, being such a big fan of that first record.

But then came her eponymous third album this year. I approached it with much trepidation, but early download releases ‘For Ash’ and ‘Transparency Is The New Mystery’ suggested that she had found the key to longevity.

The formula is still the same; Stern plays lightning fast guitar, complemented by Hella drummer Zach Hill’s brain-melting percussion, but without drifting into the self-indulgent wankery of the likes of Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen. Instead, she moulds all this technical mastery into quirky indie songs that bubble with charm.

What’s different this time is the subject matter in the lyrics, which takes Stern down darker and more personal routes than before. ‘For Ash’, most notably, was written following the suicide of an ex-boyfriend who had encouraged her first serious steps towards learning to play guitar, and sparked the songwriting process for the whole album. This one song opens the proceedings and informs those that follow it.

The result is some of Stern’s strongest songs to date, and a return of the immediacy and thrill of that first album. ‘Building A Body’ stands out particularly for me, perhaps because it’s actually the least technical song she’s ever released. Although it still features bursts of two-handed tapping, the bulk of the song is pretty straightforward in approach, stripping back the layers to reveal the bones of the song, and convince anyone left who might still think Marnie Stern is all about the razzle dazzle.

In fact, anyone who still thinks she’s too showy just needs to get down to one of Stern’s beautifully shambolic live shows. She never pulls those faces, the faux-grimaces, guitar virtuosos are known for, in fact often she can be seen looking down at the fretboard like she’s concentrating really hard, one step away from poking her tongue out of the side of her mouth. When she played The Lexington last weekend, matters weren’t helped by the bridge on her guitar being broken, requiring a mid-song fix by bassist Nithin Kalvakota at one point.

But this just adds to her appeal. She’s clearly exceptionally talented, but rather than standing around expecting everyone to congratulate her, she just gets on and does her thing. As luck would have it, her ‘thing’ is very good and people tend to want to congratulate her on it, hence she is number nine in the list of our favourite artists of 2010.

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