Playing on Prefix is a feature on KCRW’s Music Blog in which writers from the eclectic music site Prefix hip you to what’s coming out of their computer speakers each week.
New York guitarist/vocalist Marnie Stern has always been quick to lay her raw talent bare, composing dizzying sets of hyperactive and technical math-rock on 2007’s In Advance Of The Broken Arm and 2008’s 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.
On this year’s Marnie Stern, she decided to go completely transparent, emerging with an album that, while far more tuneful and emotionally invested, does not skimp on the visceral thrills that listening to someone who exercises utter dominance over their instrument provides. In stripping away some of her more obtuse moments, Stern also delivers moments of unadorned beauty that jump out at the listener, the way a freshly washed windowpane does sometimes with a flying bird.
The best example of this comes relatively early in the album, in the form of third track “Transparency Is The New Mystery.”
Possibly most indicative of its power is that after repeated plays, different aspects of the song come to light. It’s a quality that we as music fans want from those who write songs, and it’s endlessly thrilling to hear it in practice.
The track revolves around a simple, two-note guitar part that plays throughout the background of most of the song. During the verses, Stern keeps things relatively quiet, delivering her lyrics over a stuttering heartbeat drum part provided by beat-keeping psychopath Zach Hill (of Hella, Wavves, his own solo work, and countless other bands).
When the song builds into its pre-chorus section, Stern lets out a hair-raising, wounded yelp that leads into a triumphant re-interpretation of the opening riff. The song ebbs and flows like this until it reaches the chorus — and man, what a chorus it is. Over a simple three-chord pattern, Stern repeats the phrase “It’s not enough,” which after a few times through morphs into “I’m not enough.” The insistent way she bangs out those three chords while delivering those lines is one of the most heartbreaking moments of the album, and a presentation of Stern at her most vulnerable and emotionally raw.
During that chorus, Hill lays down what in others’ hands would be a straightforward beat but here comes out as a love-drunk stumble. It’s almost as if it’s not entirely sure what it’s doing and is very self-conscious about it, mirroring Stern’s downcast sentiments. Then, the intro guitar part comes back in, as if offering Stern some sort of reassuring stability.
“Transparency Is The New Mystery” could definitely cross over to a wider audience, and that could lead listeners to the more complicated rides the other songs on Marnie Stern provide, whether it be the spring-loaded guitars of “Gimme” or the bombastic charge that is album opener “For Ash.” Conversely, it also reveals the warm, human elements of Stern’s music that some might feel is lost under her shield of technical prowess. Despite its despondent attitude, it’s a total victory of a song.
Marnie Stern Track Listing
01 For Ash
02 Nothing Left
03 Transparency is the New Mystery
04 Risky Biz
05 Female Guitar Players are the New Black
07 Cinco De Mayo
08 Building a Body
09 Her Confidence
10 The Things You Notice