Marnie Stern makes happy music. Sure, she sometimes wails like a pre-pubescent Yoko Ono and plays guitar like a twelve-fingered wizard, but her playful experimentalism reveals her sense of infectious joy. Stern's fourth album, Chronicles of Marnia, remains true to her signature tapping technique and avant-garde sensibility, but the arrangements feel looser and the melodies softer. Stern abandons her trademark whiz-bang maximalism with wonderful results.
Chronicles is Stern's first album without drummer Zach Hill, whose technical skill and force proved a near-perfect complement to Stern, especially on her brilliant 2008 album This Is It. However, new drummer Kid Millions (of Brooklyn punk band Oneida) brings a more minimal touch, evident from opener "Year of the Glad," in which Stern's multi-tracked vocals meld sugary pop with monkey-like ooh-ooh-aah-aahs. In "You Don't Turn Down," her raw slide playing feels like a call to arms, anchored by vapory interludes, while the bluesy "Noonan" virtually gallops with golden, washed-out guitars. "Nothing Is Easy" channels the cheerful brutality of This Is It, followed by the delirious stomp-and-whoop fest of "Immortals." In the title track, her solos soar, lose gravity, and seem to graze outer space, and then "Hell Yes" loops back to Earth.
Stern isn't wailing to find beauty in the dark or ugly; she's chasing the music up a sun-soaked mountain. Think of Chronicles as her grinning, off-kilter postcard from the top. (Kill Rock Stars)