Friday, 22 July 2011

MUSIC: Marnie Stern, 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

Marnie Stern, 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 (Kill Rock Stars)

This review will try to avoid hyperbole about “technical ability” and “intellectual agility”, but the fact is: no other album springs to mind that makes so many declarative statements about desire and interior states with such nuance, and unique imagery expanding on them. As the title suggests, This Is It... is an album about the infinite inter-connectedness of everything… or, in one (much misunderstood) word, Love. Across twelve songs, Marnie Stern elaborates at least three inter-related themes, or perhaps one theme that’s the single face of a four-dimensional hyper-cube: that the perfect lover could only come from the future, or seem like they have done, because the present is a condition of painful alienation; that said-lover would take her out of time, extending the moment of connection indefinitely; that the only way to get the message across is to fill every second with notes. Call it psycho-geometry if you want, but Marnie’s lyrics insist on returning to reality rather than escaping into the domain of numbers, as if it’s the trite metaphors of popular culture (she’s implying) that are a betrayal of reality. Opening track ‘Prime’ aligns her with the “defenders of the real”, after all.

Thing is, this is all so much funnier and sweeter and – yes – more feminine than the exegesis above might make it sound; the “future lover” is a complex version of Tim Wheeler’s ‘Girl from Mars’ (or Frank Black’s), but sung about in a way that’s no less wide-eyed and this-must-be-love-because-you-make-me-feel-like-a-teenager. Take ‘Roads? Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Roads’; yep, that’s the Doc at the end of _Back to the Future_, just like “point of no return” (in ‘Prime’) is probably a nod to _BTTF III_, and “road to nowhere” a hit from Marnie’s early-teens. That’s not to say these are shallow references – one listen tells you Marnie’s on the same road as David Byrne, and committed to “the sounds of the future”. ‘Roads?’ opens with a bold statement: “I present two sides: my hopelessness and my faith / my ego and my heart”. By the end, Marnie’s using her ultra-fast vocal-lines as texture, but never so much that individual lines can’t be heard, and even parsed should you wish to.

Elsewhere, the multiple references to “dimensions” act as a bridge between lyrics about the domain of numbers, and lyrics about the Ego and Id, as well as referring to the paralinguistic function of the music itself: to go beyond the limits of what words can say. The numerous “pyramids” could be metonymic of human achievements so enduring they seem to stand outside time; impressions of the World of Eternal Forms in our own; symbolic, too, of the triads that compose regular chords, somehow extended into a third (sonic) dimension by multi-tracking; and perhaps also representative (at a stretch) of the Ego & Ids of a pair of lovers interlocking as the vertices of a pyramid. (In case all this sounds loopy, bear in mind what Marnie told DiS: that practicing for hours, and playing fast, is how she escapes time, and finds fulfilment because, hey, life is hard and often lonely.)

Musically, this isn’t a huge leap forward from the debut, but at least four stand-out tracks rock HARD, even anthemically, rather than just FAST, to fit more notes in that suggest new textures. Comparisons to Van Halen, Mick Barr, and those fictive time-travellers Wyld Stallyns (!) are warranted, but also Tom Verlaine and Robert Fripp who know about restraint and emotion. In places Marnie wants the guitars to sound brittle, inorganic and crystalline, but elsewhere like a rush of neurotransmitters on a molecular level – y’know: a feeling. I’ll say it again: ‘The Crippled Jazzer’ sounds like the best track Sleater-Kinney never wrote, with Led Zep / ‘When the Levee Breaks’ drums, and a lead guitar that’s almost a fife. ‘Vault’ multi-tracks the final chorus to glorious effect: “will this lonely life get any better?” The only moment that sounds cloying – sorry – is on ‘Steely’, where the vocal-effects exaggerate what’s already the inner child squealing: “I’m hoping it’s true / I’m hoping for you!” This is the one song that tells us “she got what she wanted”, and describes “him” at the end (“there’s a party in his mind / and he hopes it never stops…”). An un-effected (more mature-sounding) Marnie appears for a single line, which is reassuring – the song becomes a dialogue between inner voices, rather than an expression of fragility-beneath-it-all at the album’s midpoint. Nonetheless, there’s an odd undertone to that final line – what does happen when the party stops? Is this fun or mania? The song doesn’t answer. Later, the synaesthetic attempt to assign sounds to numbers in ‘Clone Cycle’ is a lightning rod for Marnie fans – love it or hate it? – the structure’s always on the verge of disintegrating into a silly (King Crimson / Yes) version of 1970s prog (e.g. the guitars like a trumpet fanfare halfway through), but at least it’s never boring.

Admittedly, Marnie’s shred-guitar style might not win you over straight off, making this one of those occasional gambles you have to take, that proves more rewarding with each listen. Vespertine and Ys emphasised melodic complexity, impressionistically, and yet stand above a decade of alternative music with their depictions of New Love as New World; everything enriched because of the central “You” or “Him” (they’re also about making love, in symbolic language, which is much rarer than it sounds, when most else is euphemistic). Less physical but no less daringly personal, This Is It... is about getting inside someone’s head, and making sense of what’s in your own.

[Previously unpublished]

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