There's Nothing Novel About Marnie Stern's Advanced Guitar Technique

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Marnie Stern

Marnie Stern (Kill Rock Stars)

The Corin Tucker Band

1,000 Years (Kill Rock Stars)

There’s an incendiary, near-apocalyptic track on the new Marnie Stern album called “Female Guitar Players Are the New Black.” It’s actually just one of several incendiary, near-apocalyptic tracks on the self-titled disc—her third—but its title acknowledges the gender-specific hype that has surrounded Stern since she emerged in 2007, much of which boils down to: “OMG, a girl who can shred!” Yes, a woman who can shred: the rapid-fire finger-tapping guitar technique generally associated with certain schools of metal and almost always with hairy, sweaty men.

Of course, there’s no reason shredding should be a macho thing. It has more to do with finesse than brawn, and equates more easily to, say, knitting than to sword fighting. But the guitar as an instrument has accumulated so much phallic baggage over the years that there’s still a tendency to see female practitioners as novelties or interlopers.

That winking nod aside, Stern carries on through the rest of Marnie Stern the way she did on her first two albums: Cascading guitar riffs and thundering chords collide with drummer Zach Hill’s pell-mell clatter, with Stern’s helium voice drifting above or subsumed in the chaos.

The reference points are all over the map, from Rush to the Breeders to the Boredoms, and as usual it takes several listens to grasp the shape of the songs, with their stop-start time changes and gut-punch bursts of noise. But also as usual, those shapes turn out to be pleasing and even friendly, despite their sharp edges. There aren’t melodies so much as shards of melody stuck together in ad hoc mirror balls. It’s all borne aloft by Stern’s wide-eyed, almost ecstatic sense of possibility. With exhortations like, “In order to see it, you’ve got to believe it,” she can sometimes seem like a madcap motivational speaker, making her PowerPoint presentations with a barrage of joyful sound.

Corin Tucker, at 37, is only three years older than Marnie Stern. But she is from a whole musical generation earlier. As one-third of Sleater-Kinney from the mid-’90s to the middle of last decade, Tucker was part of the highest-profile and most accomplished band to emerge from the riot grrl scene. Sleater-Kinney was always upfront with their sexual politics. When Tucker sang “I wanna be your Joey Ramone,” it was a deliberate, punky provocation.

The band went on hiatus in 2006, and 1,000 Years is Tucker’s first solo album (released on Kill Rock Stars, the Northwestern indie label that boosted Sleater-Kinney and is also home to Stern). It is a solid collection that shows her still adept with sinuous melodies and vocals that veer from tender murmurs to fiery yelps. Songs like the roaring “Doubt” and the wistful “Thrift Store Coats” would have been welcome additions to the Sleater-Kinney catalog.

Unfortunately, her collaborators—drummer Sara Lund and guitarist Seth Lorincizi—are not up to Tucker’s par, offering straightforward backing with little of the imagination or power of her old bandmates. That is not surprising: At its peak, Sleater-Kinney was a marvel, with Tucker and Carrie Brownstein trading complex, interlocking guitar and vocal lines, and Janet Weiss providing ferocious rhythmic support.But the anonymity of the arrangements and sometimes plodding tempos leave 1,000 Years sounding like exactly what it is: a pretty good solo album by someone who used to be in a great band.

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