Marnie Stern

This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It And She I

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Marnie Stern's sophomore album on Kill Rock Stars is cursed with a 30-word title that begins This Is It.... She blames an Alan Watts essay but punters can blame her -- until they hear it, that is. While her debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm, was filled with her now wildly celebrated guitar pyrotechnics inside a sprawling yet inarguably hooky pop song setting, this set goes off in a different direction entirely. Stern is accompanied here by the same crew that worked on her debut: über drummer Zach Hill and bassist and engineer John Reed Thompson. Musically, this set feels like the more rocked-up twin album to Hill's brilliant and crazy Astrological Straits (also released in 2008 on Ipecac). Tempos veer and careen everywhere, from thrash to stop-and-start near-proggish excess to no wave constructions of indefinable origin. The rather interior emotional scope of In Advance of the Broken Arm is thrown to the wind as surreal, fractured lyrical constructs are set to match this ambitious mental hybrid brand of guitar rock. "Transformer," with its extreme metallic hammer-on repetitive riffing, carries an amelodic framework for her caterwauling voice with some stretched dynamics. Her guitar heroine-ism is still unchallenged here, and it matches the speedy powerhouse forcefulness of Hill's drumming. The back-and-forth twin-neck counterpoint in "Shea Stadium" ambles between proggish anthem and rock & roll arena finale. With the tempo changing nearly constantly, Stern's high-pitched voice, offering something unmistakably artful (à la Yoko Ono but multi-tracked), becomes a blur, whirling by with her piercing strings and Hill's jazzed-up (as in Billy Cobham's) kit work as the only things to hold on to. Believe it that this is not tape manipulated music, as it sounds very close to the thrilling musical acrobatics of Stern's live performances. All of this said, there isn't a pretentious note on This Is It...; Stern may be ambitious but her songs are grounded in humor, extrapolated hooks, and fragmented pop formulas. If the guitars didn't have such a metallic ring (check "Steely"), one would swear this was some mutant long-lost post-punk record that was channeling Christian Vander's Magma! The closest thing to rock "normalcy" on this slab occurs on the album's final two tracks, "Roads? Where We're Going We Don't Need Roads" and "The Devil Is in the Details." In these songs, big over-amped riffs (played on a vintage Gibson SG Custom) come roaring out of the box. She hangs almost conventional verses and choruses onto her piledriver axe work, and almost shouts in glee through the cacophony. Admittedly, This Is It... takes a bit of work to get through the first time, but it gets easier, resulting in a compulsive, even obsessive desire to it play again and again, ultimately leading to the assertion that "there is nothing else on the planet remotely like this!"

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