City Paper is not for tourists
Indie rockers aren’t too shy about expressing their inner child, their inner hesher—or, in the case of Marnie Stern, both. On her debut disc, In Advance of the Broken Arm, the Brooklyn singer-guitarist often buries her childlike singalongs in an unrelenting swarm of finger-tapped guitar solos. Imagine the Teletubbies with a subscription to Guitar World or Iron Maiden having a seizure on Sesame Street. Fans of kindred indie-shredders Orthrelm and Hella will undoubtedly find Stern’s chops totally sick—in fact, Hella drummer Zach Hill handles the percussion duties on the album. But where those dudes shred, Stern noodles—and yes, there is a difference. Festooning her songs with ribbons of distorted treble, her fretboard pyrotechnics aren’t linear and pummeling but loopy and elastic. As they pile up, her multitracked licks either overlap into colorful melodies or dizzying discordance. Yet underneath all of the six-string wizardry, Stern’s songcraft has an unimpeachable exuberance. Vocally, she pumps plenty of life into the proceedings with Karen Onstyle shouts, Kate Bushninspired wails and sundry J-pop chirps. “Keep on! Keep at it!” she yelps repeatedly over the twitching “Grapefruit,” as if she were conducting some kind of post-riot grrrl Jazzercize class. The song then suddenly catapults into an anthemic chorus, where ascending guitar riffs and hand claps abound. But it’s curious how such an adventurous album starts developing a monochrome sheen by the halfway mark. Hill’s drumming is mostly to blame—his incessant wallop splits the difference between Animal from The Muppet Show and an over-caffeinated campus drum circle. On “Letters From Rimbaud,” his frenetic tom-thumping seems to keep Stern’s guitar scribbles from moving toward the big crescendos or explosive left turns that make her other tunes so great. She’s better on songs like “Put All Your Eggs in One Basket and Then Watch That Basket!!!,” whose surging harmonies aren’t weakened by technical bombast. On that tune, she asserts over the upbeat clatter, “I’m a contender/Make things better/I’m a contender/Never surrender.” But she can also shift into a more self-reflective mode—as on “Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling” where, over some excellent chugging riffage, she announces, “I’m not looking to find a pot of gold/ The picture in my head is my reward.” For those about to navel-gaze along, we salute you.
Stern plays at 9:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 20, at Warehouse Nextdoor. See City Lights for more info.