In 2006, Ben Parrish of the Portland- and Olympia-based record label Kill Rock Stars received a demo from a 31-year-old New York singer-guitarist named Marnie Stern. At the time, the label was being inundated by, in Parrish's words, "sensitive beardo music and bad dance-punk." Stern's demo, however, was something different—a hyperactive storm of zigzagging rhythms and jaw-dropping guitar pyrotechnics. He listened to it at least three times a day for months. Label founder Slim Moon liked the demo enough to rip it to his iTunes, but it soon slipped his mind. Stern emailed a few months later as the "DIY lady shredder," jogging Moon's memory. He listened again and touted the work's brain-melting goodness to the staff. Shortly thereafter, Moon met Stern in New York and a deal was forged.
Seven years later, Stern has just released her fourth album for Kill Rock Stars. Building off the template set by her 2007 debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm—dubbed "the year's most exciting rock 'n' roll album" by The New York Times—with the whimsically named The Chronicles of Marnia, the "lady shredder" has crafted an adorable electrocution. Equal parts playful and complex, the album's 10 tracks are perhaps Stern's best and most complete to date, an appropriate calling card for someone who's just as recognized for her dexterous guitar work as her flirtatious nature.
In a brief email interview, Stern—now nationally lauded for her toothy, tense style of guitar playing—cites the Who and Bruce Springsteen as Chronicles' most towering influences. Indeed, you can almost see Pete Townshend windmilling his guitar on songs like "Immortals," Stern's pulsating notes hanging in the balance between the organized chaos.
While Stern says her recording process didn't really change for this album, her personnel did—namely in the form of drummer Kid Millions.
"It was awesome," Stern writes from her tour somewhere in Middle America. "He accented the percussive guitar style." Millions, known for his work with Brooklyn krautrockers Oneida and currently on tour with Spiritualized, effectively holds a mirror to Stern. Her kinetic musings are matched at every measure, creating a lightning-quick call-and-response element.
As speedy a player as Stern is, it's easy to be mystified by her hallucinatory string-tapping and overlook her songwriting. The new record demonstrates more sophisticated lyrical narratives than the previous three albums. "Bittersweet you've got to go/ Got to get my handle on/ Bitter like the animals/ Crawling through the winter snow," she sings on the title track, clearing her conscience more than lamenting. "It's a mix of fact and fiction," Stern says of the song. "At the time, I had someone in mind who I was writing to." Having run kissing booths at past shows and offered dates with fans during record releases, it's no wonder Stern has plenty to muse about. It's impossible not to be drawn to someone so musically self-assured, playing the neck of her guitar as though it was a drum machine, and vocalizing just as deftly.
But it's the playfulness of her latest work that makes droll themes like work, aging and starting over from scratch seem light and luminous. As a listener, you just have to keep up. There's a moment in "East Side Glory" that testifies to this perfectly. After a few minutes of layered guitarscapes—the foundation being a bubbly, high-register repetition befitting a big hair-band solo, topped with a series of charging, scratchy hooks—the song unwinds itself. Stern slows her riff and fills the empty space with reverb. It's like a single connecting thread is being pulled, sending the entire garment to the floor, neat coil after neat coil.
With such a high music IQ and ambitious sound, Stern's astounding guitar work might yet allow her to reach some of her bigger goals. "I'd love to work with Yoko Ono, Merrill Garbus, Bruce Springsteen," she writes. At her blistering speed, those collaborations might not be far off.
SEE IT: Marnie Stern plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with Sisu, on Friday, April 26. 9 pm. $12. 21+.