In the decade since her last LP, New York City lifer Marnie Stern stepped back from her solo career at the edge of math rock to focus on domestic life. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, she was at the forefront of the new millennium’s wave of noisy, kinetic rock acts, showing off a gymnast’s flexibility on a string of high-energy records. In a twist on a day job, Stern has spent much of the last 10 years playing guitar in Seth Meyers’ late-night backing band—a gig more conducive to raising kids than the interminable grind of touring. But, she says, she never lost sight of the guitar as a “blank canvas.”
Stern reclaims her place among the era’s most commanding guitarists on her polished fifth LP, The Comeback Kid, a densely packed showcase of her distinctive style. The latest set is noisy at the core and fuzzy at the edges, heavy on fingertapping and busy melodic displays that snap together elements of punk, grunge, and surf rock. Re-sharpening the rounded edges that shaped much of 2013’s The Chronicles of Marnia, Stern flaunts a reinvigorated spirit in searing songs that live up to the playfully celebratory mood she establishes in the album’s title.
In press materials, Stern described making the new LP as an exercise in learning to “start being myself again.” Any time she wondered whether a choice was too strange, she’d remind herself that this was her project: “I’m allowed to do whatever I want!” In that spirit, “Plain Speak” opens the album with bright, bristly, major-key riffs that she tempers with layered vocal harmonies. “I can’t keep on moving backwards,” she barks, standing firm at the center of the song’s dizzying tilt-a-whirl spin.
She leans further into her idiosyncrasies on “Believing Is Seeing,” unleashing a creepy, almost cartoonish cry—“This place is cold! I can’t hear you!”—over icy ostinato guitar before stepping sideways into a series of riff-heavy passages. “What if I add this? And this?” she asks as she heaps layers of guitar onto the mix, playing up the self-referential humor. The churning energy of “The Natural” and the short bursts of “Oh Are They” both channel classic elements of ’80s and ’90s underground rock; her repeated yelps have the feeling of a rallying cry.
Like the oaky notes of aged bourbon, the particulars of Stern’s technique have only gotten richer since The Chronicles of Marnia. Her dives feel more dramatic, as when she approaches power-metal poses in “Forward” or shreds up a storm in “Working Memory,” and she reaches piercing vocal highs that land between a ’70s psychedelic shriek and a winged mythical beast. Drummer Jeremy Hara is Stern’s reliable companion throughout, complementing her breakneck fretwork with powerful percussive blasts.
After the gleeful pirouettes of the A-side, the album’s back half becomes more reflective. Even when she pursues a more linear path, Stern moves with surprising intensity. She grapples with the blues in the striving “Get It Good,” and “Earth Eater” fizzes with nervous energy as Stern contemplates lingering pain. The ragged, grungy sound of “Til It’s Over” gives it an even darker cast. Hara’s drumming pushes the song relentlessly forward, as if hitting the gas on a long stretch of open road at night.
The Comeback Kid blasts by in under half an hour, and Stern’s impulses to chase her weirdest muses serve her well throughout. She lands her adventurous leaps with breathless energy. Aglow with her triumphant shredding, Stern’s howling return is a neon-haloed song of herself.
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