Marnie Stern

In Advance of the Broken Arm

(Kill Rock Stars; 2007)

By Peter Hepburn | 15 October 2007

You know someone is either a great guitar player or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles villain when they get labeled "The DIY Lady Shredder." In Marnie Stern's case it's obviously the former, though I'd like to see Leonardo and the gang try to step to the wicked guitar playing that riddles Stern's debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm. The “DIY” part of that horrendous moniker refers to the fact that she recorded a bunch of these songs in her bedroom on a 4-track, before Hella drummer Zach Hill helped her polish and record. As for a being a "lady shredder"...well, hearing the sweet racket Stern makes on this album, it's hard to imagine her neighbors on the Upper East Side liking her very much; her cascading, withering axe-work infuses the album with an abrasive and vicious edge.

Stern's distinctive guitar sound recalls the spastic rock of Kill Rock Stars label-mates Deerhoof, though there are plenty of nods to '70s arena rock and '80s hair-metal along the way. Indeed, Stern has created quite a stir via her guitar showmanship at various live performances, but luckily, there's a little more going on with her songs than just technical trickery. Stern is not merely out to show off her chops. She is able to harness her guitar wizard powers into three-minute pop songs quite effectively. And, though at times the pop gets haphazard and can be almost overwhelmed by teetering tapped out guitar solos, Stern manages to hold everything together with engaging lyrics and a surprisingly strong vocal presence.

Opener "Vibrational Match" shows off both her propensity to chew up and spit out awesome riffs and somehow keep pace with impassioned, caffeine-addled singing. Her energy as a singer recalls Karen O's exuberance so much that I've already heard quite a few times that this is how folks wished the Yeah Yeah Yeah's sophomore album would have sounded. And indeed, songs like "Every Single Line Means Something" show Stern sneering with both her guitar and vox, making her a weird Karen O/Zinner chimera of sorts. Her ear for simple vocal melodies that still manage to be interesting also recall Scout Niblett's last album, albeit a little more upbeat.

In Advance of the Broken Arm is a surprisingly consistent listen, but the middle section is its strongest. "Logical Volume" is all Zach Hill clattering and Stern blistering and bleating; "Letters From Rimbaud" starts like a pulsing Kim Gordon rocker before careening into blaring Deerhoof-ish madness, visiting several filthy rock riffs and then all the way back again; "Put All Your Eggs in One Basket and Then Watch That Basket!!!" is a catchy yet droning and weaving anthem; and "Asorb Those Numbers" features a guitar riff that manages to channel Melt Banana and the Who at varying points. I hesitate to call Stern's guitar work wholly inventive, but her assimilation of various references points into something fresh and incredibly fun is certainly engaging.

With Broken Arm, Marnie Stern has delivered a frenetic and ridiculously entertaining debut. As entertaining as her playing may be, however, the guitar work can be short on delivering pop hooks; when she finds one, the songs are great fun, but when she doesn't, or takes too long finding it, the album can become a little grating. Hopefully on future releases Stern will further channel her fascinating guitar approach into tighter song structures. But for the time being, when a sole guitarist can go from channeling Deerhoof to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to the Who to the Boredoms in a single song and somehow make it rock, she's got my attention. And she should have yours.