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)

By Colin McGowan | 10 October 2008

You know that part on, well, most of Surfer Rosa (1988) where Joey Santiago makes like a disoriented flea on meth and his guitar lines flail around erratically, virtuosity replaced by the sheer fervency of glee, resulting in something like a distorted salvia trip? Right. This Is It is that—tripping over itself in a seemingly impossible effort to connote (ready desperate Malkmus whine:) “I’m tryin’!”—but substitute out Black Francis’ tortured wailings and insert annoying/adorable cooing. Best believe, the exhaustive nature of explaining what exactly Marnie Stern’s sophomore effort sounds like pales in comparison to how absurdly frenetic her music is. Proportions are off all over the stuff.

So: listening to This Is It is something like watching film of a supremely orchestrated fireworks show sped up to 20x its normal speed, scraps of brilliance rapidly igniting and then gone, disintegrated. And yeah, it’s all a bit overwhelming, but in time it’s revealed (Hi, Passive Voice!) to be solvent, even mindful, only masquerading as resplendent chaos. “Clone Cycle,” in fact, reflects this in rather literal terms as cataclysmic drums back sharp guitar tones floating in and out of various channels; Stern muses on, of all things, geometry, with staccato shouts of vertices and points on a square. This comes off as ridiculously as it was probably intended, but no doubt a composition so layered and consisting of so many well-coordinated parts (nearly all of them on guitar) takes a certain mathematical mind. Hiding behind all this silliness is a guitar virtuoso with a knack for making face-melting riffs appeal to the arctophile in all of us—balls of yarn, florescent clutter, Barbie doll heads line the mean streets of a pink bedroom.

“Steely” provides one of the few valleys, thankfully, for hyperactive guitars, normally dispersing notes outward like shards of glass from a shattered window, to give way to one of the few restful stretches (about 45 seconds). That’s when Stern intones, “I’m like raging animation / I wonder what it’s like to be one,” and for once one of her playful assertions sticks. She comes off not as some vivacious child but as a weary ponderer, suddenly feeling the physical age of her body and its limits. It’s hard to talk about such a fleeting album’s depth or study the connotations of lyrics seemingly flung like candy from a split piƱata, but for a brief moment, Stern exhibits, or at least bestows upon whatever sugar-fueled personality she plays on this disc, a sense of vulnerability that’s rather touching, one that can effectively contrast the rest of the album’s hectic, crayon-scrawled tapestries.

Meanwhile, I spent a solid two plus hours of my weekend watching Speed Racer in blu-ray, which was, as a friend put it: “crack sucking heroin’s dick.” An indistinguishable blur of primary colors and blue screen—well, what’s the opposite of magic? Insufferable indulgence may be one of the biggest “fuck you“s an artist can impart upon their audience; it would be very easy for Marnie Stern’s latest offering to be as overwrought and stupid (and lengthy: it’s only 24 minutes) as its title. Her tastes seem to point down the route of an innumerable amount of metal and noise rock records that toss virtuosity and riff-age and all that everything aesthetic into a blender, pour, and cram the glass directly down listener’s esophagus. Instead she constructs an effort that, while firmly grounded in giddy spasticness, is firmly grounded in something, deceptively careful. Plus, it’s just oodles of fun.