Marnie Stern | Marnie Stern
Most Likely To: play a featured (but not starring) role in the wet dreams of guitar wonks.
I’m a fan of the guitar, of course – it would be pretty pointless being a connoisseur of the rock & roll and not have a fondness for the instrument. Tom Verlaine, Glenn Branca, Chuck Berry, George Harrison, Robert Fripp, Will Sergeant – I’ll sigh those names with a deep reverence I more commonly reserve for God or Gilligan’s Island. But I’ll admit to being mostly left cold by stunning displays of technical virtuosity from the likes of Steve Vai or Joe Satriani or Dweezil Zappa – the sort of stuff that gives readers of Guitar Player magazine the dry heaves just thinking about it.
Actually, to say I’m left cold by that sort of stuff is a bit of an understatement. It’s more accurate to say that I loathe that shit and am bored to death by it. I scoffed at Satriani’s lawsuit against Coldplay, not because I thought Coldplay were above such thievery but because I couldn’t imagine anyone ever willingly listening to a Joe Satriani album or getting anything out of it beyond glazed eyes and a feeling of regret at squandering one’s precious time upon Earth.
Which of course raises the question as to why I’m loving Marnie Stern’s self-titled third album so damn much, as the entire thing is lousy with virtuosic guitar wankery of the highest order – the kind of stuff more commonly purveyed by Eddie Van Halen than by anyone on the Kill Rock Stars label. However, it’s not really much of mystery – what Stern does that Satriani and Vai don’t is put all the fretboard fireworks in the service of actual songs. She don’t shred just to show-off the fact that she can shred. She’s got too much other shit to do, and that’s what makes the difference.
Stern is a specialist in the finger-tapping style of guitar jack-offery, a style that I can identify because Trey Anastasio, during his speech inducting Genesis into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, was kind enough to point to an example of Steve Hackett doing it. It’s that guitar noise that sounds sort of like a bumblebee whipping up a cake mix by hand, and I guess it’s achieved by the rapid tapping of one’s fingers on a guitar string. I wouldn’t know for sure, as generally any time I’ve heard the sound I’ve happily found something else to do besides watch how it’s achieved. But when Stern does it I like it.
That’s because she – like Hackett before her – uses it for mood and texture, weaving it in and out of songs rather than stopping everything dead just to show off for a little while. And the songs themselves are just dandy, an artsy mix of new wave and no wave and riot grrrl and just plain kick-ass rock & roll.
Opener “For Ash” roars like Glenn Branca discovering drum & bass music while being chased by a swarm of mosquitoes before staggering into all sorts of math rock time changes. “Nothing Left” plays like Lene Lovich fronting Sonic Youth, a combination I’ve been apparently been longing for without ever realizing it. “Transparency Is the New Mystery” boasts a chorus that is downright pretty, during which the otherwise tough as nails Stern actually sounds vulnerable. “Building a Body” somehow manages to mix funky Delta 5/Au Pairs/Gang of Four post-punk with Phillip Glass and a Bavarian oom-pah band – it’s a weird freakin’ thing, but it’s damn cool.
I could very easily see Marnie Stern becoming the reigning goddess of the Guitar Player set, but I suspect there’s one fatal flaw in her music preventing that from happening – it’s interesting. She can play like Eddie with nitro in his veins, but she does so in service of songs that are simultaneously wide-ranging yet concise. She never succumbs to virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake, and that’s what I love about the album.