What does Marnie Stern sound like?
A guitar virtuoso channelling a fretboard tap into spasmodic indie rock.
The review of Marnie Stern – The Comeback Kid
It’s been a decade since Marnie Stern last released music on her own but upon returning to solo music, it’s as if she has never been away. The latest album crams 12 songs in under 30 minutes. It is spasmodic, aggressive and celebratory. It also brings back the iconic tapping fretboard technique, placing it in unusual indie rock arrangements.
If you’ve not heard a Marnie Stern song before, I’d explain her style like this. Imagine a guitar has been wound up like a pencil windmill and been let go. Every pinwheel spin at high speed contains about 16 notes that pulse on and off. Marnie taps the guitar’s fretboard in a way that makes every riff, solo and guitar noise sound like it is going at 500mph. This was previously the big pull for Marnie’s work but on her return, she’s tried to move this guitar style into something more traditional with its song structure. On the album opener ‘Plain Speak’ Marnie sings ‘I can’t keep moving backwards’ and it’s a statement of intent. The entire album’s lyrics can be viewed from the idea of an artist starved of creativity. There are elements of lyrics as if she is opening up a sonic box of treats and adding layers and flourishes and then commenting on them lyrically. It brings the album to life like an artist reforming their creative brain before your eyes and ears.
Whether that means we go on an out-of-control guitar solo with joyous handclaps like an electric Irish jig in ‘Believing Is Seeing’, or we go down the more psychedelic route with ‘The Natural’, almost every song flies along at a furious pace. Even when the fret taps are less prominent, Marnie is basking in funky riffs and indie bliss. ‘Oh Are They’ sees Marnie consciously starting to move away from her signature style. Instead, we sit firmly into the alternative rock and then the psychedelic world with the groovy ‘Forward’. ‘Working Memory’ brings the tapping technique into an out-of-tune Belly-styled 90s alt grunge. It is messy, chaotic and full of big chords and pixie shouts.
Dissonance is something the album deals with in spades. ‘Il Girotondo Della Note’ evokes a Tanya Donnelly high register coo throughout whilst mysterious guitar riffs drape bombastic drum fills. ‘Til It’s Over’ bedrock rock production styled alt rock running at a crazy BPM. Hearing Marnie Stern take on traditional chords, rubbery basslines and all the usual trapping of a rock song is oddly refreshing. Marnie stated she wanted to rely less on her signature move on evidence of this track alone, she could rock a four-chord anthem with ease. Where both sides of her rock collide on pointed and tight two-minute anthems like ‘Nested’, it’s where the gold dust is.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the pace of a Stern song. ‘Earth Eater’ is one of only three tracks getting over the three-minute mark. Its playful hop-skip-jump in the drums makes it such a playful piece to listen to. I’m sure it encourages music and movement in adults too. This pops up across the album but the punchy and punctuated riffs and percussion lets the listener shake out their worldly rage to the beat and then freeze momentarily before shaking it out in rage again. ‘The Comeback Kid’ is a physical experience because of the fret tapping and the big drum loops. By the time you reach closers ‘Get It Good’ and especially ‘One And The Same’, you are attuned to rhythms and are at one with the music, jamming in body and mind.
It is a welcome return to music for Marnie Stern. This is a wonderful hark back to previous albums whilst also branching out beyond her usual style. It leaves me excited for the future because some of the strongest moments of the album are where Marnie merges new and old. This sounds like an artist refreshed and the palpable excitement to explore new ideas pours through the speakers. ‘The Comeback Kid’ is an energising album and rock fans should give this unusual beast a whirl.
Recommended track: The Natural
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