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Marnie Stern
Marnie Stern Judy Berman , October 21st, 2010 12:28

I've always found it mystifying that Marnie Stern is best known as "the lady who shreds" – a phenomenon that has now gone so far she's named a song on her new, self-titled album 'Female Guitar Players Are The New Black'. It goes without saying that her finger-tapping chops put just about everyone else in the business to shame. But I don't think that's what we're actually talking about when we talk about Marnie Stern, Girl Guitar Wonder. The fascination with her technical prowess is merely lazy shorthand for the far rarer and more impressive truth that, all gender considerations aside, Stern is a bona fide original. And in a year when almost every new band can be endorsed or dismissed with one of a handful of embarrassing subgenre descriptors, that's no small distinction.

Fond of complex, spiraling riffs and vehement, high-pitched vocals, Stern might sound something like a riot grrrl fronting a minimalist speed-metal band, if her music weren't even stranger and more unique than that juxtaposition suggests. Her wide-ranging lyrics are packed with philosophy, but she doesn't turn her nose up at humour, either. She is utterly obsessed with language and its limitations. As if to express this ambivalence, she litters her songs with spoken interludes and buries choruses under layers of guitar and drums in roughly equal measure.

Considering that what she does is impossible to imitate, Stern could surely have got away with treading the same ground album after album, at least for a few years. Instead, she's made great strides on each of the two full-length releases that followed her 2007 debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm, without ever abandoning her singular style.

If 2008's 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 (yes, there's that fixation on words and their inadequacy) found her embracing a more three-dimensional sound, Marnie Stern feels even fuller and more complete. Part of this can surely be chalked up to Stern's increasing experience, along with the return of virtuoso drummer Zach Hill, who has appeared on all three of her albums.

But the impression of wholeness has even more to do with the personal pathos that drives Marnie Stern. Love them or hate them, Stern's album titles are never accidents, and this one is no different. Grand, cascading opener 'For Ash' hits like a caffeine high so intense it induces a manic paralysis. A tribute to an ex-boyfriend who killed himself, it splits the difference between lively send-off and panicked lament. "I miss your smile," confesses a musician who's always been more at home in the intellectual sphere than with her own emotions.

As the album progresses, this acute, physical loss becomes less literal, replaced by a more diffuse but no less introspective sense of absence. "In order to see it/ You've got to believe it/ I do," is the mantra Stern tries to convince herself of in 'Transparency Is The New Mystery', a track whose name would have made an equally fitting album title. On the exhilarating, suspenseful 'Cinco De Mayo', her language play becomes a kind of transcendental prayer: "You will always be here/ And here/ And hear/ And hear." Almost every song gestures obliquely toward an emptiness or inadequacy or failure of communication. And yet, the closer Stern gets to the end of the album, the more intent she seems on digging herself out of the hole she started out in.

This unity of vision has made for more sonic coherence, too. It's forced Stern to modulate her noodling in the service of more varied song structures, from the impassioned crescendos of 'Cinco De Mayo' and 'For Ash' to the quiet, wistful truce of the album's final track, 'The Things You Notice'. Her voice, which once had but a single setting (loud, fast, high) seems to have matured overnight, conveying everything from solemn whispers to mid-tempo, rock-hero snarl. "Understand me," she pleads on 'Her Confidence', and nine songs into the album, it feels like we just might. By rendering her musicianship inseparable from the emotion behind it, Stern forces us to see beyond "the lady who shreds" to a whole, struggling person – one who's well worth getting to know.