Review Summary: Makes The Shaggs sound like Led Zeppelin. Truly awful.
Being a music reviewer is fun. Ultimately, it allows you to sit and have some alone time with the music you enjoy, and try to explain to others, and perhaps to yourself, just why you enjoy it so much. Every so often you might get the opportunity to indulge in some nerdy musical humour, and share it with people who'll actually know what you're talking about. You become part of a community - whatever community that is - that allows you to interact with like-minded people and talk for as long as you like about the thing you're most pasionate about.
However, sometimes, the job feels a little like a public service. Sadly, not all music can be good; some of it can be downright terrible, and those who hear music this bad have a duty to warn everybody else not to waste their time with trash, right? It's nice to write about and listen to music you love, but sometimes, you feel compelled to let other people know that what you just experienced was not something they should be repeating (or at least, you SHOULD feel that - if you don't, where's your sense of humanity?).
So here I am, waving a pile of dog*** with Marnie Stern's name on it, warning you - urging you - not to make the mistake I made.
There's a certain amount of committment that comes with burdening an album with the lowest rating available to you. 1.5/5 is a brutal score in itself, of course, but it stll shows you've held back in your attack - a 1.5 is a bad album, but an album you can forgive and forget. It's an album that will probably trouble a list of the year's worst albums, but will eventually be forgotten when lists of the worst albums ever are compiled. It's probably something that will anger you and disappoint you when you hear it, but the feeling won't last. But a 1? Man, that's something else. Those are albums that you'll still get angry at years after the event. Albums that will stay with you as a benchmark of how badly an idea can be executed. These aren't albums that merely 'suck', they are albums genuinely worthy of hate. Acknowledging this, there is not a single scrap of doubt in my mind that this deserves the rating I've given it.
Marnie Stern is a guitarist who fancies herself as a shredder. I use both terms lightly - I'll return to her personal performance on her instrument later. The compositions can be loosely classified under indie-pop, but don't come here expecting the intelligent songcraft of a Belle & Sebastian or a Wilco; the shambolic, near-punky attitude taken when composing these songs renders them a shambolic mess more in keeping with the precedent set by The Libertines and their followers. The lyrics are mostly indescernable thanks to Stern's vague, uncertain singing, but don't complain too much; they're hardly great, mostly consisting of a list of short phrases assorted into a jumble, with any sense of flow, coherence, or meter presumably thrown in the same bin that 'listenable production', 'enunciation', and 'singing in tune' ended up in. The boast of "Every Single Line Means Something" is a hollow one, that's for sure. Support comes from Zach Hill, famed as the drummer in Hella - he should be ashamed of himself for being involved in this, although he does occasionally offer up some neat ideas that get buried under the guitar - and John-Reed Thompson on bass.
But Marnie is undoubtedly the star of the show here, and there's not a second goes by where she doesn't exploit that fact. I'm not kidding - absolutely everything here is drenched in finger-tapping, or super-fast alternate picking, or some other kind of unnecessarily flashy guitar playing. The guitar doesn't even stop to allow her to sing - she simply sings over the top of her guitar. Sadly, two lines with no melody at all don't add up to one decent melody. Do you think the best indie-pop should be catchy and fun? Evidently Marnie Stern disagrees with you on both counts. The longest break without some irritating guitar on the entire album registers at somewhere around the 40 second mark. It's probably the best 40 seconds of the album. Even when she settles on a riff, as she does on "Letters From Rimbaud", it's still annoying, repetitive, ineffectual, and it still overpowers the vocals more than it should. Only on one track, the spoken-word "Patterns Of A Diamond Ceiling", do the vocals take precedent, and there it's a showcase what sounds like an amateurish poetry reading.
Now, I'll readily admit I'm not a fan of 'shred' albums in general, although the humour of Buckethead and Paul Gilbert, and some of the more famous ballads by the big names, are easily enjoyable enough for me. I also am happy to say that I have no problem seeing why or how people enjoy the likes of Vai, Satriani, Malmsteem, and so on when they're doing nothing but widdling at full speed - their chops on their instruments is beyond doubt, and to listen to them as technicians is to be left awestruck. Although some would seek to place her in the same bracket, Marnie Stern doesn't even have that scant redeeming feature, because her playing is some of the sloppiest I've ever heard. Seriously, anybody who criticizes Jimmy Page for being sloppy needs to hear some of the playing here and realize what the word 'sloppy' actually means. She rarely, if ever, sounds in control of what she's playing - notes are fluffed, rhythms are jerky, the volume isn't consistent, and the picking hand's faltering synchronisation with the fretting hand creates unwelcome noise. If anybody who has ever actually seen Marnie Stern play guitar is willing to state that she can actually play at this speed without making the basic technical errors usually associated with players who haven't put the work into learning how to play at high tempos, then I'll happily believe them - but this album is a poor, poor showcase for her lauded playing. Four of the six people I live with could make a shred album that is as good as this from a technical standpoint. And I'm pretty sure all six of us could write a better collection of songs, too. But the sad fact is that the songs here, uniformly mediocre as they are, don't even begin to register until the third listen - it takes that long to get past the shoddy, overdone, deeply irritating non-stop guitar playing. One might argue that the playing is deliberately sloppy and badly recorded to make it fit better into the shambolic nature of the songs - if that's the case, then it was an awful decision and whoever made it should forever be banned from involvement in any creative process of any kind.
At least 75% of the music on here is donwright obnoxious; the rest merely annoying. I have friends who take pride in the fact that they deliberately write songs that sound as bad as possible, songs that nobody could ever really enjoy, and those intentionally awful efforts are actually better than this album. This makes The Shaggs sound like Led Zeppelin. Have I made myself clear yet? This is truly, truly abysmal music. Do not even listen to it to find out how bad it is. If you have even the slightest curiousity, get some Maps & Atlases and find out how this SHOULD be done.
One final positive note? I'll never forget this album. That, at least, is something I have to respect.