Marnie Stern burst on the indie rock scene like a wrecking ball in 2007. Her frenetic guitar playing and intense pop songs garnered instant critical acclaim. The New York Times championed it as the most exciting rock album of the year. Her second album was named one of the best albums of the year on several year-end lists and Stern was summarily tabbed as one of the best female guitarists of all time.
A tough act to follow for the Brooklyn-based guitarist, but somehow Stern delivers yet again on her third studio release.
Her self-titled effort is ballsy, blistering pop-rock that absolutely scorches with intensity. Stern’s signature finger-tapping style is on full display from the get-go, and her improved song-writing and melodic sense completes the picture.
Stern is again joined by longtime collaborator Zach Hill who provides poly-rhythmic percussion that tightly frame the shredding guitar and punkish vocals. Yes, the vocals, which have been a somewhat justifiable complaint for some of Stern’s critics, are tamer here and much more melodic. The resulting songs are tighter, smoother, better.
There are some times (“Risky Biz”, “Transparency Is the New Mystery”) that Stern gets shrilly, but it’s quickly tempered by a solid chorus or driving songwriting. Ultimately, it’s a small complaint on a brilliant album.
Opener “For Ash” is a horse gallop of fireworksy pop-rock about an ex-boyfriend who committed suicide. “Nothing Left” piles stacks of riffs atop Hill’s breakneck drumming and an imploring chorus. “Female Guitar Players are the New Black” is a sneering scorcher, with Stern’s guitar skills are on overdrive, extending a musical middle finger for three-plus minutes.
Indeed, there is an air of determination and bad-assery found throughout, a contrast to her startling vulnerability found earlier in her career. Even the fact the album is self-titled is an implicit vote of self-confidence. Combined with a recent tongue lashing of the buzzed-about Best Coast’s Bethany Consentino, Stern seems determined to stake claim as indie-rock royalty. With her third album, it’s no idle threat.