Monday, January 19, 2009

Marnie Stern. This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That (Kill Rock Stars, 2008)

"I have not slept for nights/ I am learning to travel through time/ That's right, nothing can hold me down."

When they first lumbered across the early '80s hardcore landscape, Dinosaur Jr. were credited with making guitar solos cool again. Punk and hardcore looked askance at the solo, dubbing it a selfish mode of flaunted virtuosity, a means of setting yourself above the rest of the band and the audience both. That stuff was for parents, prog nerds, and classic rock meatheads, not punks who prided themselves on their DIY amateurism in a movement that placed energy and passion over skill.

But then J. Mascis came along, channeling his love of Neil Young and Peter Frampton through high-decibel hardcore amplification, churning out wailing solos at blistering volumes and making it ok to be pretty good at guitar. Dinosaur Jr. reminded the punks that virtuosity could be put to awesome use.

What J Mascis did for Neil Young Marnie Stern is doing for Eddie Van Halen. This chick is one of the best guitar slingers out there right now, a straight shredder with phenomenal chops and the pop sensibility to use her talent in the pursuit of hooks. Stern liberally employs the tapping technique, perhaps best known for its use in Van Halen's "Eruption." Basically, tapping involves using your fingers to strike the guitar strings at the fret board instead of down at the body. It requires a lot of dexterity and precision, and when done right results in a skittering flurry of single notes. Stern does it right, and it sounds pretty sweet.

The somewhat annoyingly-named This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That is Stern's second LP for Kill Rock Stars, and comes on the heels of the 2007 debut In Advance of the Broken Arm. This Is It is an excellent showcase for Stern's abundant gifts, and is one of the most exhilarating listens I've had in a while.

On song after song, Stern -- who sings in an adorable high-pitched cheerleader yelp -- just wrecks it, making her guitar do unholy things in the pursuit of chest-thumping, fist-pumping abandon. Check out Transformer and "The Package is Wrapped" for the tapping, and try not to go blind. The Crippled Jazzer is effing epic, moving between lightning-paced fretwork to mid-tempo stomp wondrously. It's totally hypnotic, sure to send you into a headbanging fugue state. Roads? Where We're Going We Don't Need Roads builds and builds around ringing power chords, and boasts one of the best hooks on the album.

Stern's mad skilz aside, one of the reasons the album works so well is because of the powerhouse drumming of Hella's Zach Hill. Hill more than keeps up with Stern, matching her shredding beat for beat, employing frantic kick drum volleys and snare rolls to keep things moving right along. He's Stern's secret weapon, giving her a rock-solid rhythmic foundation on top of which she can build her towering temples of guitar wizardry.

While there's certainly no shortage of hard rocking lay-days on the indie scene these days, it's still surprising to see one who rocks with such abandon and employs a playing style that's more often associated with male D'n'D enthusiasts than petite blonds from NYC. But novelty or no, Stern is the real thing, as This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That loudly testifies to.