Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock rose to international fame with his iconographic drip painting works that included countless experimental masterworks including One: Number 31, 1950 as well as No.5, 1948. After achieving international fame, Pollock struggled with the personal curse of his once experimental style becoming stale, and unable to evolve further past the pure abstraction of the Pollock a-type drip style. The same curse of artistic experimentation has been seen in numerous contemporary bands — some, like Radiohead or Animal Collective, have been able to be successfully outrun the curse by branching out to fusions of various different genres, styles, and methodology. While others, like New York-based Math-Rock/Pop act Marnie Stern, seem unable to break free from this dilemma, and unfortunately on her newest record the question becomes: When does experimentation become repetition?
It’s unfortunate: Marnie Stern shows signs of advancement from the pop/math-rock fusion of her previous two records, “In Advance of The Broken Arm” (2007) and “This Is It” (2008), but seems widely shackled down by the idea of being as loud and technically proficient as possible.
Hella drummer Zach Hill returns for a third round, but the octo-armed, one man marching band’s abilities distract the listener — not only from Stern’s increasingly powerful songwriting abilities, but from the pop-song structure underlying tracks that leaves listeners wanting more.
Album opener “For Ash” is a perfect example of Stern’s possible evolution being bogged down by stale experimentation. Somewhere, hidden beneath the abrupt tempo changes and guitar-frenzy, is Stern’s most personal song to date: a eulogy for a lover that was taken away from her world by taking his own life. The growing power of Stern’s personal expression in songwriting is present with vocal bursts assuming the role of cries to heaven; she looks back at the life taken away from her with exclamations of the blessing the love served as part of her personal growth — this in stark contrast to the usual route songwriters take of wallowing in self-reflection and pity at their great loss. Hill’s drumming and Stern’s guitar work leave the listener with the impression of little more than musical static instead of the great joy contextually present in the song.
Marnie Stern isn’t a bad record by itself. And, to be realistic, it could even be seen as her most cohesive work to date, once again promising Stern another record sure to be part of many listeners’ yearly retrospection in December. But placed within the context of her career thus far, one is left with a hope that Stern will possess more faith in the future for her ever-increasing songwriting capabilities. Instead of showing us all, once again, that she is capable of crafting a musical Jackson Pollock–esque frenzy of electric guitar and time-signature changes.