The Chronicles of Marnia
is, for all intents and purposes, Marnie Stern’s Swing Lo Magellan
(2012), an album intent on gathering up its artist’s various idiosyncrasies and feeding them through a mechanism of accessibility. On that record, Dave Longstreth and the other Dirty Projectors whittled their screeching experimental pop music into sparse, arty gold; the album was an unqualified success because their odd charms were emphasized rather than muffled by the band’s decision to strip things down a little. With Marnia
, it seems Marnie Stern, beloved by many and abhorred by a few for her noodly guitar lines and shrill vocals, is looking to make the same kind of jump. Clocking in at a lean 32 minutes, the album is Stern’s most easily approachable yet, its songs shorter, catchier and less loopy than those found on previous efforts like This Is It...
(2008). But there’s a certain hollowness to the album too, as our favorite indie shredder’s efforts to make her brand of math rock marketable have instead rendered them sterile.
This is the downside of commodification as a creative process: just as often as you get a success like Swing Lo
, an album like Marnia
displays an artist merely working her sensibilities into a formula, a fixed set of affectations. Stern seems to aspire to the archetype of the wildly imaginative weirdo but her album feels like algebra homework, each song an equation or a set of parameters--unpredictability made into a mathematical process. If that makes this album sound perversely interesting, I’ve not done my job; her constant reliance on tropes of both pop and of experimental music makes for a dispiriting listen.
Opener “Year of the Glad” sets the tone, Stern’s vocals sounding positively monkey-ish and her musical backdrop borrowed from Glenn Branca’s The Ascension
(1981), a wave of guitars constantly building toward nirvana. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this approach (see: Boredoms) but the song’s failure is in its inability to find a compelling melody or chordal motif to latch upon; as a result, the whole thing sort of just flaccidly collapses, a piece of pop that doesn’t have the courage of its upward-moving convictions. Second track “You Don’t Turn Down” is an improvement, but that’s only because it highlights the wrongdoings of the rest of the album. Its dreamy closing section is gorgeous but more importantly unexpected
, something the other nine tracks never are. Those tracks seem to follow a set routine: Marnie yelps about how you can be “just like her” or something similar, Oneida’s Kid Millions pounds out some muscular drum patterns, and guitar frets are burned up in ways that start to sound strikingly identical by album’s end. This, I suppose, engenders the paradox of accessibility--that an aesthetic so fresh can melt into something so bland when presented as a manufactured “process”. The Chronicles of Marnia
, an inoffensive record by all means, could easily be reframed as a work of refinement, and to belittle it on that basis seems unfair. That said, the album musters such little excitement from its arsenal of dynamic guitar solos and yells of self-affirmation that I think it might be Marnie’s problem, not mine.