There are a couple of things I’m always on the lookout for:
1. Interesting, new-ish ways of using electric guitars. Indie-rock these days relies too much on horns, strings, synths and that sort of thing. I want to hear some inventive guitar, goddammit. And I don’t mean people should be imitating Kevin Shield more.
2. Strong, distinctive women in the world of rock-and-role. Sleater-Kinney’s been gone for, what, three years? I haven’t noticed anyone step up to fly the flag of girl-punk. What the hell?
So Marnie Stern’s unfortunately-titled new album, “This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and That Is That” (which I will never type again), is something of revelation.
Stern is one of the rare guitar gods (goddesses?) whose virtuosity is employed to engage and surprise listeners rather than to masturbate into our ears. The fact that she taught herself guitar at the age of 23 after hearing Sleater-Kinney for the first time is as remarkable as it is unsurprising in light of her music. Her work, while often hook-laden, is built differently from anything else you’re likely to hear these days. The songs on “Off-putting Word-vomit” aren’t built on chords or easily-identifiable melodies. Instead, Stern usually starts the song by laying down a dense, rhythmically complex pattern of notes, which she spends the rest of the song developing, bending and interpolating. Some special credit should go to drummer Zach Hill, Stern’s only accompaniment, whose ingenious poly-rhythms perfectly accentuate Stern’s mania.
Needless to say, conventional song structures go out the window; it’s rare to hear an easily identifiable chorus or a clearly defined solo on her new album. The best example of Stern’s style is probably the first track, “Prime,” on which Stern yelps a Dadaist rant, first over nothing but handclaps, then again and again over an increasingly complicated theme. The best analogue I can think of for the music she crafts is early, punky math rock, or maybe baroque fugues.
Oddly enough, it’s also completely appropriate that Stern’s been covering Journey at recent shows. She adopts and subverts some of the sillier postures that Steve Perry’s (or his non-union Filipino replacement’s) merry band of arena-rats love so much. Stern might unleash her flurries of proggy finger-tapping, or let loose her inner Axl Rose as she screams over epic, open chords and martial drum rolls. The intros to “The Package is Wrapped,” “The Crippled Jazzer” or “Vault” wouldn’t sound too out of place on Headbanger’s Ball circa 1986.
Honestly, I can’t make much of Stern’s lyrics. There seems to be a lot of semi-mystical weirdness (she tends to say things like “All I see is dolphins, I feel close to them”” or “There are dimensions I must enter to see what I am made of”). Her voice often works more as an instrument. Her yelps, moans and growls blend into the textures of her songs. She doesn’t always sing and play on the same beat, and the resulting chaos is wonderfully bracing.
Stern’s ostentatious weirdness gets a little exhausting though, and the songs do blend together after a while. But her blend of cock-rock, Riot Grrrl and googly-eyed experimentalism is a breath of fresh foreign air. It’s refreshing to hear music that forces me to pay attention and figure out what’s going on.