New York's guitarist Marnie Stern debuted with
In Advance Of The Broken Arm (Kill Rock Stars, 2007),
Zach Hill on drums.
The album is a juvenile
romp through heavy-metal, punk-rock, garage-rock and noise-rock
filtered through the sensibility of the new wave of the 1970s.
Not quite an intellectual singer-songwriter a` la
Patti Smith, and equipped with a much
more feminine voice, Stern had to
rely on an intricate abrasive guitar attack, frantic rhythms and demented
repetition to bestow meaning on her songs.
Stern transfers the exuberance of her age into extremely unstable formats:
Her method of childish repetition and amateurish drumming works best in the
frenzied hoe-down of Vibrational Match, in the
anthemic nursery-school singalong Put All Your Eggs In One Basket,
in the chaotic Absorb Those Numbers,
in the supersonic Healer,
and in the hyper-ebullient The Weight Of A Rock, that evokes a
dissonant remix of
Rip Rig & Panic's stomps.
The cacophony can be very entertaining, as proven by
Logical Volume and
its concentrate of digital sound and vocal effects; and
it even borders on the danceable in Letters From Rimbaud, that sounds
like Fatboy Slim's
Rockafeller Skank for spastic dancers.
And occasionally she lets the melody prevail, like in the atonal punk-pop
ditty Every Single Line Means Something.
At times Stern's songs sound like
a mildly melodic and wildly effervescent version of the "no wave" of the 1970s
At other times she displays a passion for the shrill vocals of the
Chinese opera reminiscent of Frank Zappa.
They are coupled with manically chirping guitars in Precious Metal,
and with a syncopated slam-dance in Grapefruit.
The whole show straddles the border between seriously butt-kicking
alternative rock and teenage prank.
Therefore it comes with a surprise when she plunges into a relatively
sophisticated and martial meditation like
This American Life.
Stern singlehandedly took apart and redefined the stereotype of the female rocker.
This Is It & I Am It & You Are It & So Is That & He Is It & She Is It & It Is It & That Is That (2008) soundes less spontaneous and almost post-rock in
its ambition to outdo the pure energy of the debut.
Harder edges replace the old frenzy. Hence
The Crippled Jazzer boasts a blues-rock riff worthy of Free, and The Devil Is In The Details sounds like
Joan Jett at the Rio carnival.
Only a few songs retain the first album's balance of childishness and frenzy.
Prime opens as an a-cappella rap but turns into a childish rigmarole
endlessly shouted by a choir with stentorian guitar and primitive drums.
The same pack of children indulges in the wild
Scottish jig (with the guitar replacing the bagpipe) of Transformer
and in the martial hoe-down of Ruler.
Her poppy side is now infected by
convoluted dynamics like in the intellectual noise-rock of the 1980s. Hence
the limping and skewed Shea Stadium and the agonizing and mutating
Marnie Stern (Kill Rock Stars, 2010) is simultaneously more emotional
and more melodic.
For Ash, alternating between full-throttle assault and playful self-mockery,
is an exercise in how to give a children's nursery rhyme a punk dimension
(it is actually a requiem for a friend who committed suicide).
The no less ebullient Nothing Left weds
explosive post-rock contortions and merrily witchy hoe-down.
The more melodramatic and extroverted Building A Body almost ventures
into dance-punk territory and boasts a gloomy melody (instead of the
usual naive rigmaroles).
The other songs, however, indulge in quirky refrains and jagged rhythms that
push the envelope much further.
Female Guitar Players Are The New Black is a strange hybrid that
stretches from Chinese opera into prog-rock.
Cinco De Mayo is a musical transposition of hysteria and breakdown.
The Things You Notice is even an atmospheric mid-tempo ballad.
This is anguished music that obviously mirrors heartfelt issues.
It is also the best way to employ Zach Hill's convoluted drumming, a second
"voice" that frequently steals the show, especially compared with the
primitive guitar strumming.
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