Marnie Stern: In Advance of the Broken Arm

[19 February 2007]

By Matt Cibula

At the very least, young indie-rocker Marnie Stern has an original approach; she accompanies her strange songs, full of chants and avant-ish poetry, with some seriously skronky electric guitar. Most of this is done using the hammer-on technique, making it all kind of sound like Steve Vai soloing constantly over OOIOO tracks. Except it’s all in English, and Stern is probably more influenced by Sleater-Kinney than OOIOO, and her technique is more self-taught than Vai’s hyper-arpeggiated muso bullshit/genius. So it all ends up sounding rather unique.

Take “Precious Metal”. The song is built on two spiky-jangly guitar figures that repeat in various ways for the first minute and a half, over the crazed tribal drumming of Zach Hill (of the band Hella). These two riffs fall into each other and then fall apart separately to create a big fat rock anthem feel, which itself fades away. They then do the whole thing over again quicker, cede to ten seconds or so of speed metal, and then she starts to sing. (We are now only about 1:25 into the song). Or, rather, a whole bunch of Marnie Sterns start to sing something I can’t make out, because one of these riffs continues underneath. There are several vocal sections, and they each have their own motif. The song finally crunches to a stop after three minutes and ten seconds, at which point the listener collapses into a quivering enervated heap.

And that’s just one of 13 tracks. Some mess with the format by incorporating tropes from funk (remixed, “Logical Volume” could almost be a dance song, kinda), the blues (“This American Life”, possessor of the nastiest guitar riff of the year), and industrial thrash (“The Weight of a Rock”, with its stuttery-edited vocals and the oddest drum sounds you’ll hear this year). Every time through the record reveals more relatives and “influences”—Yoko Ono here, Sonic Youth there, Björk dancing to Motörhead, etc.

Most of the pieces have so many vocal layers and so many piled-up guitar and drum tracks that they end up seeming more like onslaughts than actual songs. But, y’know, onslaughts are cool too, rather bracing to just crank this up in the car and let all the heavy chunky fluttery sounds pound off your brain. But only for about two songs at a time, or the chaos will make you jump out of the car in a kind of noize rapture.

There is one basic problem here. Stern’s voice and guitar hammers are both pretty much in the same register, so it seems like her two main assets are constantly fighting against each other. This is fine if she doesn’t want her lyrics to be heard at all, but I’m not sure that that is true.  In the Breeders-sounding “Grapefruit”, she starts by turning herself into a cheerleader chorus repeating “Keep on! Keep at it!”—and that’s the last thing that can be understood. She may or not yell out “Suppertime!”, there’s something else about Christmas lights and a line that ends with “into the future”, that much is clear. But the rest of it: lost to history. And the opening of “Absorb Those Numbers”, where everything is clear, devolves into multi-track hell, sound, fury, nothing, etc.

She is a lot more effective on tracks like “Every Single Line Means Something”, when she takes her guitar muscle down a few octaves so her killer opening couplet can shine forth: “And then it comes to me that every single line means something / You see it’s up to me to drive myself into the ocean.” (Although it might be “drag” or “try” instead of “drive”. Not sure about that.) And the spoken-word narration of the closing track, “Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling”, helps the song toddle down its freaky path. Here, she takes us through a surreal Cinderella story, announcing each new riff as the backing for a new leg of the journey, until about halfway through, when the song turns into a metallic beast. So satisfying.

But also exhausting. This is a pretty good start for Stern, and a lot of crazy young people will blow out their eardrums to this in the next several months. But her next record will be clearer—and more interesting—than this one is.

Listen to “Grapefruit”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/marnie-stern-in-advance-of-the-broken-arm/