Marnie Stern shouldn’t actually exist in the real world. As far as I can tell, she is the mythical ideal of a rock babe, equal parts cute and badass, able to coo a catchy chorus and shred like Eddie Van Halen. If some pimpled, Weird Science rock geek devised a machine that could synthesize the ultimate rock dude wet dream, Marnie Stern would come flying out along with her Fender Jazzmaster and lapdog, Fig.
Pretty girls have always played more-or-less decorative roles in progressive rock music, but Stern’s real-world modus, since her 2007 debut, has always seemed a subtle ploy to subvert every remaining shred of rock misogyny. Her records have always had a cute veneer—her 2008 record was called 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—but just below the optomism and effervesence is some devious fretwork and take-no-prisoners groove sense. In the past, this depth was accentuated by drummer and general badass Zach Hill (Hella, Death Grips). For this record, the drum seat is filled by Kid Millions of psych-rock outfit Oneida. The first taste of the volitility the two can conjure comes on the record’s second track, “You Don’t Turn Down,” when the pop framework fractalizes into an interlude of baroque finger-tapping and machine-gun percussion.
Stern’s fleet tapping often functions more as an arpeggiated backdrop to her tracks, rather than a pyrotechnic centerpiece. It’s this nonchalance that makes the exhortation, “I’ll come and find ya!” on “Immortals” all the more intimidating. Her virtuosity isn’t a weapon here; it’s just standard operations. Yet, she doesn’t want it to sound like she isn’t trying either. Things get anthemic on “Nothing Is Easy” when she declares that “You don’t need a sledgehammer to walk in my shoes” over a “Baba O’Riley” trill of hammer-ons.
It’s not as if all of Stern’s work needs to be a referendum on her unlikely combination of talents, but she chooses to make herself the centerpiece of her work with the kind of playfulness that makes a self-referential title like The Chronicles of Marnia palatable. Frankly, us pimpled weird scientists would likely stand back, agog, and watch Stern shake a tambourine in 7/8 time if that’s all she wanted to do, and Stern acknowledges this, singing, “No one ever really understands anybody else’s life” on “Still Moving.” It’s her insistence on transcending the fantasy, though, that has us pinching ourselves every time.