We live in trying times for guitar gods and goddesses. Once exalted for demonstrating otherworldly digital dexterity at ridiculous speeds, fret-burners now largely find themselves hitting their heads on the low ceiling of irony. And in a sense, they’ve got no one to blame but themselves: Virtuosity became wankery through self-indulgent gratuitousness. Furthermore, as violin bows, lightning-quick hammer-ons and the like permeated rock music, most fast fingers were finally exposed as the novelty act they are. If the songwriting isn’t there, it’s no longer difficult to distinguish between musical substance and straight-up masturbation.
But every so often a prodigal thrasher blazes through, momentarily challenging the status quo and carving out a niche in the pantheon of guitar greatness with a new breed of ax mastery. Enter Marnie Stern. Signed to Kill Rock Stars after sending in a home demo, the singer-guitarist wowed ’em at CMJ in the fall, and on In Advance of the Broken Arm, her two-years-in-the-making debut written and recorded with Hella’s Zach Hill serving as drummer/producer/co-conspirator, the out-of-leftfield bedroom player delivers on that early promise. Built from hypnotic hammer-ons, stutter-stepping time signatures and blazing tones, this is a pop record gone astray, a noise-y affair with a charming rough-and-tumble sunniness on every track that manages to impress technically while at the same time delivering dizzyingly cohesive songs.
On opener “Vibrational Match,” Stern sets her template, kicking things off with a bright, bubbling, finger-tapped riff that’s barely set before it’s joined and complemented by Hill’s equally busy drumming. Seconds later, Stern’s high, multi-tracked voice soars in, declaring “I am a vibrational match!” It’s surprising, breathless stuff, a mix of talent and excitement that overwhelming at first. And before the listener can make sense of it all, the song shifts into a new, equally impressive riff, then quickly shifts back to where it began. These rapid changes and surefire tunes coalesce into a triumphant declaration: Marnie Stern is a force to be reckoned with, and she’s happy about it.
This defiant talent lends In Advance of the Broken Arm a bursting-at-the-seams quality-every space on the record seems filled and ready to be discovered. On “Absorb Those Numbers,” horns punctuate a hammering riff as Stern sings, “Hey!/ Now!/ Where does this begin, and hey!/ Now!/ Where does it end?” “Logical Volume” begins as a noise freak-out but suddenly turns martial and anthemic. Stern recognizes that this constant flux needs a unifying element, and she ultimately uses her voice to hold it all together, many times employing it to double-guitar melodies. “Grapefruit” opens with her yelping “Keep on!/ Keep at it!,” seemingly exhorting herself, the music and the listener all at once, and ends with her high-pitched moan ascending into a strange digital crack-up, a moment as distorted and searing as any of the guitar work on the record.
This penchant for the abrasive gives the record a tonal uniqueness, but it also leads to some of In Advance of the Broken Arm‘s weaker sections. Stern is looking to deliver all of the goods all at once, and she mostly does, but the trebled-out sonics can sometimes be painful, and when coupled with the some of the carnival-esque meanderings, the bottom can momentarily drop out and the album’s energetic willingness can devolve into indulgence. At these moments, the music can seem better suited to a seven-inch, and at thirteen tracks, In Advance of the Broken Arm is at least two songs too long. Yet Stern’s manner of weaving together fiercely subjective, lyrical daydreaming with Olympus-level fret-searing finally means that the album justifies the majority of its many decisions.
On closer “Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling,” Stern repeats a simple narration about a room with a diamond ceiling, assigning noises to every occurrence and object until she creates a verbal-aural crossroads. It’s a moment that resembles a children’s audio book, and one that most clearly approaches a summation of her simple (not simplistic) belief in the profound power of music. “We must dream on,” she says finally. And on In Advance of the Broken Arm, Stern demonstrates the wherewithal to do so: to use her chops to support her heart, and not vice-versa.