Marnie Stern
Marnie Stern
Kill Rock Stars

For all the guitar-shredding rah-rah exuberance Marnie Stern brings to her music, a lot of her albums are rather personal. The ludicrously titled This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, from 2008, had a fair share of hands-in-the-air crowd pleasers, but underneath her one-of-a-kind musicianship, there was a very insecure girl “vanishing into the trees,” as it were. That underlying sense of human nature helped balance out the sensory-battering and programmable nature of her talent—and that effect is only magnetized on her latest effort, Marnie Stern. As the self-titling implies, it’s an album about herself, her thoughts and her struggles.

Marnie Stern is no longer the girl who obsesses over former lovers and cuts their faces out of old photographs; she hardly even manages a shadow of that confidence here. She’s not heartbroken and pissed off, she’s just heartbroken. Without a fuck-off demeanor to ease the pain, she herself feels responsible for the relationship failures, and there’s nothing she can do to mend the past, as it’s too far gone now. “He’s got her, it’s not enough, I’m not enough,” she sings in a wounded admittance on “Transparency Is the New Mystery.” Not even the trickiest finger-tapping could stop that from being emotionally touching.

That’s not to say that there’s a diminished amount of Stern’s guitar attack. In fact, a few of the songs on Marnie Stern go further down her experimentalist acuity than she’s previously exhibited. “Her Confidence” especially lets the usually controlled bursts of noise unravel and careen all over the song’s three minutes. But then there’s closer “The Things You Notice,” which has the fairly specific honor of being the first indisputable ballad Marnie has ever written; her ethereal wordstew is kept just out of understandability and her unfiltered guitar fills up all the other audible spaces. She repeats a few sighing words, settles her rhythm into a groove, and then it fades out, unsolved, leaving Marnie hanging just as puzzled as she began. How does she figure it all out? Well, I guess that’s reserved for the next record.
Luke Winkie

MP3: “Transparency Is the New Mystery”

Alain Johannes
Rekords Rekords/Ipecac

Alain Johannes is the type of multi-instrumentalist journeyman that you don’t see that often in this day and age. In addition to having performed in the band Eleven with his wife and creative partner Natasha Shneider for more than 15 years, he’s played, performed and written on albums for artists all over the music spectrum. Everyone from Chris Cornell to Kelly Clarkson has gotten the Johannes touch, but his highest profile role has been as a member in the Josh Homme universe. He’s done stints in the Desert Sessions project and Queens of the Stone Age, collaborated with occasional Queen Mark Lannegan, and become a member of Spinnerette (Homme’s wife Brody Dalle’s band) and the touring band for Them Crooked Vultures.

Following their work on QOTSA’s Era Vulgaris, he and Shneider left the band to re-launch Eleven. Unfortunately, during that time Shneider was diagnosed with cancer and later died in 2008. The staggeringly prolific Johannes could have settled into a quiet role as a sideman following the loss of his wife and chief collaborator, but instead he’s found the determination to release his first solo album, Spark, on Homme’s Rekords Rekords label.

As a producer, Johannes doesn’t have a heavy handprint, but there is a very distinct sonic style. If you’ve heard Chris Cornell’s Euphoria Morning or any song from Eleven’s catalog, you’ll recognize the exotic guitar phrasing and instrumentation and the arrangements that manage to keep every element in perfect balance. His one trademark would have to be his remarkable restraint. Spark continues with the program of no empty calories. The one moment of bravado comes within the opening minute of “Make God Jealous,” where Johannes unloads a furiously technical, flamenco-influenced acoustic guitar solo. But that move isn’t just flash—it sets the mood and drive for the rest of the song. It’s almost unbelievably well thought out.

As a tribute album to Shneider, Spark lacks almost all traces of darkness one might expect. Yes, there are some serious moments, but the record is shot through with a celebratory mood. Even “Endless Eyes,” written in the immediate aftermath of Shneider’s death, is more anthem than dirge. Johannes then pushes the mood higher with the insanely bouncy “Return To You.” But like everything else on the record, the sequence is clearly by design. Spark is an unabashed celebration of life without an ounce of mawkish sentimentality.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “Return to You”

Owen Pallett
A Swedish Love Story ep

Owen Pallett just had to go and spoil us by making Heartland. Released last January, the Canadian pop composer’s third and best album is a dense, adventurous record that never lets the act of challenging listeners get in the way of entertaining them. Pallett’s new EP, A Swedish Love Story, is a wonderful record by all normal standards, but when compared to the material we’ve come to expect from him this past year, these four songs fail to spark much excitement. Nevertheless, this is a satisfying snapshot of Pallett’s talents that will keep fans happy until his next LP.

Opener “A Man With No Ankles” is as bouncy as anything Pallett has ever written, as a simple beat drives intricate violin melodies. Here he plays his fiddle like a guitar, frantically strumming it to give the song a Far East vibe. “Honour the Dead Or Else” is an eerie screed against brattiness punctuated by huge tympani hits that, while suitably dramatic, never sound as ridiculous as they might in the hands of a less nuanced performer. But the highlight here is “Scandal at the Parkade,” which soars at lightspeed on the energy of Pallett’s furious layers of violin.

Pallett has carved out such a distinct musical niche for himself that it’s sometimes easy to take his formidable talents for granted. But while A Swedish Love Story is little more than a holding pattern, a holding pattern from Owen Pallett is far better than most artists’ best work.
David Holmes

Dark Dark Dark
Wild Go
Supply & Demand

I had the chance to see Dark Dark Dark a couple years ago when they played with Castanets in a small DIY space. By my own admission, I was there for Ray Raposa and company, yet in the end, it was Dark Dark Dark, with their simplistic melodies and elegant musicianship, that stole my heart. They played tracks mostly from their lovely, if sparse, 2008 debut, The Snow Magic, and I was struck not only by their collective musical maturity (which contradicts their youthful outward appearances), but especially their seeming nonchalance and ambivalence toward their compositions. Thankfully, two years later, this same talent and unadulterated charm are alive and well on their second LP, Wild Go.

The album begins with the tastefully accordion-driven “In Your Dreams,” which shows off this sextet’s mastery of meshing quirky instruments with haunting piano melodies, as well as their gypsy-folk influence. It also introduces the audience to where much of Wild Go’s magic lies: within singer/accordionist Nona Marie Invie’s intensely candid approach to vocals. She has a deeply intimate voice in the vein of Billie Holiday which makes ballads sound earnest, turns love songs sincere, and renders songs of loss almost unbearable. Luckily for us, the majority of the tracks here deal not with loss in the traditional sense, but with life’s wistful occurrences and symbiotic relationships with the world around us, making for an enjoyable and markedly relatable listen.

Wild Go is woven with lovely carnivalesque waltzes (“Say The Words,” “Wild Go”), slow, sparse ballads (“Robert”) and whimsical ditties (“Celebrate”), which change time signatures at will and are placed seemingly with the same willy-nilly rationale. Though the album undulates at will and some songs are certainly more effective than others, Wild Go weaves a wildly enjoyable path.
Jennifer Farmer

MP3: “In Your Dreams”

White Dress
White Dress ep

Sometimes all it takes to make a good song is a good grasp of what not to play. It’s easy for guitarists to just throw in another strum or two to match up with the drums, and it’s easy for a drummer to use a huge eight-count fill to cover time when two or three snare hits would have tastefully sufficed. After mastering this musical tactfulness, the next ingredient in the formula to an awesome record is consistency. White Dress has it down already, and this is only their first EP. I want them to never change the formula—I want five more White Dress albums that sound exactly like this.

From the dusty sound of opening rocker “Five Feet of Road” to the jaded lover singing “I don’t want to know anymore strangers” on the lonely backroom saloon blues of “No Solid State,” on this too short EP the duo shows a range of emotions without coming across as if they’re trying to ape five different bands for five different songs. White Dress gave it a try with a different line-up initially, but singer/guitarist and primary member Arum Rae Valkonen settled on drummer Grant Van Amburgh, who, thankfully, sticks close to Arum’s reverberating cauldron of guitar spells and knows when to just shut up. White Dress is a two-piece, but this is no Jack and Meg mimicry. No, they end up sounding like Beach House mixed with the Walkmen, but recorded inside a time capsule with Mick Collins in 1988. Their self-titled EP has been compared to Mark Lanegan’s work with Isobel Campbell, but that doesn’t really do it justice. There are more ghosts present in Valkonen’s voice and the production is much dirtier. The only problem here is the length, which I could go on and on about, so better to think of it like a tactful live set, the band climbing onstage, ripping through five songs in 15 minutes, then leaving the crowd with heads turned and jaws dropped wanting more. So hurry up already, White Dress. Gimme more.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy