I was just re-reading my blog on the first Marnie Stern album, “In Advance Of The Broken Arm”, from last year. I mentioned plenty of stuff about Lightning Bolt and Sleater-Kinney (and slyly avoided a couple of other reference points, more of which later), and about how Stern had certain similarities with early PJ Harvey.
“It reminds me, in a way, of how PJ Harvey was initially so inspired by the music of Big Black and the ’80s US underground, but twisted those influences into something that was accessible but never felt compromised,” I wrote. “I think Stern draws on the leftfield rock of the past few years in a similar way. And I also reckon that there’s enough wit, melody and energy, never mind finger-shredding technical prowess, here to suggest that, like Harvey, Stern might go on to bigger things.”
Now we have the second Marnie Stern album, that doesn’t seem quite so likely. Ostensibly, she’s made more or less the same album all over again, though fortunately with such exuberance and virtuosity that it’s hard to get too knotted up about artistic progress or whatever. The first great thing about this one is the title – “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” – which goes some way to putting the stream-of-consciousness-and-energy that is Stern’s schtick down on paper.
That schtick, if you missed it first time, is built around her high-speed, tapped guitar-shredding. Each song is more or less built around these bombastic squiggles, with Stern’s own vocals and Zach Hill’s dynamically flailing drum strategy manically in thrall to what are, basically, guitar shop technical-wanks. It’s one of the more daring and successful re-inventions that I can recall in recent times, since Stern effectively makes artpunk capital out of (and here come those previously suppressed comparisons) Eddie Van Halen solos and, again and again, Rush’s “Spirit Of Radio”.
I can’t pretend to be a fan of either of those things. And I’m anxious that you don’t think Stern’s music is some kind of irony-laden stunt; comparable maybe to some bootleg mixer like Girl Talk hacking up ‘80s hits as raw material for an exercise in party-rocking dialectics (In this new Pitchfork interview, interestingly, she plausibly makes a case for never really hearing those metal bands, and being influenced instead by math/prog bands like Don Caballero). Instead, as great tracks here like “The Crippled Jazzer” and “Shea Stadium” prove, Stern has noticed what many of us missed; that this historically self-indulgent technique can, in a new context, sound unexpectedly spiky and vigorous.
How many times Stern can use it as the crux of her music remains to be seen, of course. Will the fireworks still sound exciting on her fifth album, or will she have found another way of presenting her undoubted, wilful songwriting talent by then? That may be something foolish to speculate about, or it may be a reason why a UK label – in spite of plentiful buzz round the first album – hasn’t picked up such a blazing talent. I suppose that’s not our worry, ultimately: this is another terrific album, and I’d really like to finally see her do this live, too