Wednesday, 24 December 2008

"There's a party in his mind/And he hopes it never stops"

1. Swirls of Cheap Paint

A better way of saying what I was trying to say here -- Marnie Stern's music reminds me of sleepless nights spent painting crappy abstracts in my bedroom. It brings back memories of page after page of try-hard lyrics, of tapes (and mini-discs!) full of overworked songs. It suggests far too many short stories that started out as genuine efforts then decayed into in-jokes for my friends.

Marnie's music reminds me of all of these things gone right, which means it's not memory we're dealing with at all, actually...

2. Copious Tape Hiss

Remember your musical masterpiece, which turned out to be The Verve's 'The Drugs Don't Work' in lo-fi drag? Still, that change from C to... what was that chord? You were never sure quite what you were doing there, but that bit of the bridge was nice.

Remember that afternoon you spent jamming with Parky in your bedroom? All you know for sure is that it sounded like My Bloody Valentine killing reggae, and that this was not a good musical direction now matter how you tried to spin it. Again, though, that bit at the end of that song where you let that effect-bolstered chord hang in the air while he played some sort of weird Running Man/Terminator style riff on his keyboard... that bit really worked.

Except, and here's the important bit, Marnie Stern's music doesn't suck. In fact, it rocks. Intensely. So... it sounds precisely nothing like your formative efforts, I suppose. There are no 'bad parts' here, nor any faux-reggae adventures. Which makes you wonder: if you'd worked far harder on those songs, would they have ended up being this good? Were you ever capable of crafting something that was all good part? I mean, sure, you might not have ever written a song with quite as many good parts as your average Marnie Stern song, but still... a boy can dream, right?

3. Reveals Something Beautiful

This is what I was trying to get at when I said that 'nothing sounds easy on a Marnie Stern record'. Her music is the sound of hard work paying off, and there's a relentless giddiness to her frantically interconnected guitar and vocal parts that induces both great nervousness and great excitement.

My favourite Marnie Stern moment so far = that bit in 'Steely' where the stuttering loop of hammer-on guitars breaks down into a dual guitar/vocal melody as Marnie sings 'I'm like a raging animation/I wonder how it feels to be one'. This line clears the way for what might be the most naked and expressive moment on the album, which... that sounds really lame now that I've just said it, but listen...

The drums stop, and the guitar noise pares down to one fading note while Marnie sings the words 'I'm hoping it's true/I'm hoping for you! you! you!' in the most cracked and delicate voice she can muster. The music kicks back in on the first 'you!', but it has been transformed into something joyous, triumphant even. 'Nothing can stop me' she shouts, and it doesn't sound like a boast, even though it probably should. In fact, it sounds more like a discovery than anything else -- 'Nothing can stop me!' Oh shit! No, really -- 'NOTHING CAN STOP ME!'

4. Again and Again

Of course, everything reminds me of something else, and what I've written above reminds me of Brian Chippendale's Maggots. Like Stern's music, Chippendale's cartooning is almost too busy. His scratchy little figures dance and twist and screw down one page and up the other, finding strange rhythms in the grind:

Chippendale's book makes the fact that it has been worked on part of its style -- it was drawn on top of a Japanese catalog, fragments of which can provide texture to both individual images and whole pages. It's a work of streaming consciousness, rather than stream of consciousness, a portrait of the artist as a randy, frustrated young man.

Karen's first comment on the book: 'Why are there so many cocks in this comic?'

Good question!

The answer: 'Because the artist is a boy, silly!'

The really amazing thing about Maggots is that it sometimes rages its way into real, honest-to-fuck beauty. Sometimes a single image will be repeated with an almost hypnotic frequency, with tiny variations announcing themselves along the way:

[This scan stolen from Derik Badman]

At other points the constant barrage of panels will stop so that you can actually appreciate the beauty of the moment... the way Chippendale has made something wonderful out of something perfunctory:

That's a kind of discovery too, isn't it? I'd say so, but make sure you pause over each of these images for a sufficient amount of time, because once you leave it them behind it's easy to get lost in the constant buzz of black and white images and to forget why you were so mesmerised in the first place.

5. There Is A Difference

Brian Chippendale makes music too, of course (and who could doubt it when they read his rhythmic comics in full flow?!). He's best known as the drummer/vocalist for hardcore noise-machines Lightning Bolt, but I believe he's involved in a number of other projects, none of which I'm even slightly familiar with.

Sticking to what I know: Lightning Bolt's music is far more frantic and avant-garde than anything on the first two Marnie Stern records, but I can't say I'm a huge fan. Which is to say: there's a lot going on in there, but I don't get that much out of it.

Check out the band in action, if you haven't already, and see what you think:

Much as I admire Lightning Bolt's relentless intensity, I can't say I've ever managed to find any moments of mad beauty in their bass/drum freak-outs. Your experience of the band might be different, of course, but I'm afraid that I hear an impressive cacophony and little more.

Oh, and before anyone says it -- I know that I'd probably enjoy Lightning Bolt a lot more live. If the opportunity ever presents itself, I'll definitely check them out in that environment.

6. In The Every Day

Hmmm... in thinking about how to close this piece, I'm tempted to start judging these various works of art by talking about their covers. I want to make a crude comparison between the way the cover of Maggots places a harsh, leering caricature at the centre of a technicolour explosion...

...and the way Marnie Stern's friend and cover artist Bella Foster distributes an equally bold array of colours in a more subtle fashion, using little explosions of white to give a sense of calm to Stern's record sleeves:

This comparison needs to be thought through far more thoroughly, but still, there's something to it. And is it just me, or do these covers seem genuinely representative of the art they contain? One threatens to sweep you away in the madness, while the other promises equal parts chaos and order. Both of these artifacts are hard work, their covers seem to say, but in a good way!

And aren't they both worthwhile, in the end?

In everyday life, the appeal of 'hard work' can seem elusive. Don't we have enough of that to do already? Well, yes, but sometimes it's the goal that matters, and sometimes that's where 'difficult' art can come in extra useful.

This is why I don't listen to Lightning Bolt very often, while Marnie Stern is always on my headphones. I've put a fair bit of effort into Chippendale's music without getting much back, whereas I find myself overwhelmed by how much This It It... and In Advance... have offered to me so far.

Maggots falls somewhere between these two poles for me. It can be hard going, sure, but that makes the moments where it becomes genuinely rewarding all the more satisfying. Sean Collins recently wrote about the book, highlighting the sense of anxiety that the book generates, and praising it for its build and release structure:

The tension is maintained by Chippendale's art, which feels like a peak into a hermetically sealed limbo of endless black, occasionally interrupted by secret trapdoors, ladders, and at least one food stand. Panels are tiny, cramped, filled in as much as they can be, careening wildly from one end of the page to the other. Even the white space is busy, showing the text of the catalog underneath. No matter how much our hero Hot Potato and his comrades and enemies run, jump, climb, crawl, and even fly, there doesn't seem to be any way out for them. Of course, this makes the moments when Chippendale pulls back for a dazzling spread--a field of flowers, the arrival of that sorcerer guy, a massive staircase--all the more impressive. That's the oldest trick in the book, but there's a reason for that: It works.
He's right, of course. When they're used well, the most well-worn tricks can be enough to draw you in, to make you see patterns and possibilities in the middle of even the most frighteningly abstract routines.

Marnie Stern's songs are built out of some pretty basic musical elements (catchy melodies, catchier riffs, tweedly guitar parts and MASSIVE drums), but the way she puts these things together... shit, you'd think she was serious about trying to make sure they worked or something!

Right now, I'm listening to the way she battles her way through every note of the two songs in this video ('Shea Stadium' and -- yes! -- 'Vibrational Match'):

These songs sound twisty, noisy, beautiful, alive. They sound triumphant, despite the fact that they're constantly on the verge of overloading themselves. They sound like how I want to feel today, and isn't the kind of hard work that's worth it?


David said...

Ah, shit. I worked really hard on this post, but I'm not sure I like it now.

Must try harder. Or, actually, maybe I should try a little less hard...

David said...

Or maybe it's not that bad after all? It certainly takes you through something, which was always the original intention...

Hmm? What?

Oh, don't mind me. I'm just talking to myself here.

Sam said...

I think you did a pretty good job nailing the main points of why this stuff is great. "Maggots" I find kind of difficult. The whole reading in a snake shape gimmick would work if it was consistent. It just ends up being irritating most of the time. I do love that sense of hypercellular tension that drives both artists. Marnie Stern's work reminds me of insect civilizations trying to rebuild heartstrings. (Probably the Orthrelm influence synthesized with the emotional core of Sleater Kinney's more vulnerable stuff.) The analogue in Chippendale's musical work would be those liitle mini-snare rolls he does where it bounces like a richochet but it sounds like two really fucking solid hits. It's that intersection of physical extremes with an artistic expression that makes them both really fun and rewarding to follow.

David said...

Good points there Sam! I do enjoy/appreciate the physicality of Lightning Bolt’s music -- I just wish I got more out of it than admiration, is all.

I think you're right about the appeal of Marnie Stern's music, though. I'm a huge Sleater-Kinney fan, and I do see a connection between the way Stern uses twiddly, interconnected guitar & vocal parts to suggest emotional turmoil and the way Sleater-Kinney did the same.

I'm also interested in the differences between their approaches, compositionally -- S-K seem like much more of a traditional rock band*, always raging or reaching outwards, whereas Stern's songs always seem to exist on the verge of either exploding or collapsing.

I don't know if the band/solo artist duality I'm setting up here is oversimplified or not, but that's how their respective work sounds to me. Also: Stern's lyrics certainly lend themselves to this interpretation, what with their pop-tastic self-improvement shtick.

With regards to Maggots, it is a pain in the ass to read, largely because of the snaking rhythms, but... like I mentioned in the post, it felt like it was worth it to me in the end.

That said, I am currently questioning whether my tolerance for this kind of formal extremism is higher for art that is read. Like, I do dig some noisy, experimental music, but if I'm honest I tend to prefer artists who have something more traditional going on alongside the crazy shit. I've got a lot of love for Marnie Stern, Sonic Youth, the Fiery Furnaces an so on – all artist who are very pop in their own ways**.

With comics and literature, however, I tend to have a bit more of a taste for the hard stuff. Something to do with me reading a little too heavily on the modernist side when I was younger, I guess.

I’m definitely with you, though – this stuff is great fun to engage with!

And... I'll stop while I still can.

Thanks for commenting Sam!

*Uh, probably because they were. Man, am I full of insight or what?

**I also like a lot of less indie stuff, but that’s a whole other conversation, so... yeah, we’ll skip that for now.