in Frieze | 01 OCT 07
Featured in
Issue 110

In Advance of the Broken Arm

Marnie Stern (Kill Rock Stars, 2007)

in Frieze | 01 OCT 07

There are altogether too many things squeezed onto New York-based Marnie Stern’s hyperactive début, In Advance of the Broken Arm: Looney Tunes melodies skip alongside scattershot drumming and geometric guitar figures, each of the 13 tracks characterized by an almost violent playfulness (the album title fittingly references Marcel Duchamp’s suspended snow shovel). With only one song tipping four minutes, and references veering from Prometheus to Cinderella, from lyres in Classical Greek theatre to Glenn Gould, the cumulative effect is a decidedly 21st-century overload of information.

While Zach Hill, the prodigious drummer from Californian duo Hella, deals with percussion and production, In Advance … is overwhelmingly Stern’s album. Her voice is layered as many times as her guitar, often chanting in a game of call-and-response with itself. Along with Don Caballero and Sleater-Kinney, Hella was one of the bands that influenced Stern to pick up the guitar eight years ago at the age of 23 and to embark on an obsessive practice regime. Stern’s breakneck virtuosity is the result – a style that is reminiscent of the introduction to The Who’s
‘Baba O’Riley’ (1971), played using only finger-tapping (the 1980s’ Rock guitar technique scarcely used since Van Halen). Winningly candid, Stern actually cites a trio of her disparate influences on ‘LogicalVolume’, swerving from M.O.R. to avant-Rock: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’ (1975), Television’s Marquee Moon (1977) and Orthrelm (Mick Barr’s Washington DC-based metal minimalists). Although the interlocking guitars from Television’s début are half-heard on ‘Put All Your Eggs in One Basket and Then Watch That Basket!!!’, it is Orthrelm’s OV (2005) that most clearly informs Stern’s phrases. Each self-contained bar is repeated as a unit of texture, rather than strung out on some freewheeling Prog Rock journey. This restless concision, every riff and hook pared back to the shortest possible length, gives In Advance … its Ritalin-fuelled infectiousness.

Thirty seconds from the end of the stand-out track, ‘Every Single Line Means Something’, the song is gutted, leaving a ghostly loop, while opener ‘Vibrational Match’ ends with Stern’s wildly panning, disembodied voice intoning ‘I’m near it’. These gauzy textures borrow more from navel-gazing early-’90s’ British bands than they do from the prodigal hyper-activity of Lightning Bolt and Hella – and are reminiscent of those sections of tracks by My Bloody Valentine that sound as though the band has absconded from the studio, leaving only a ghostly rhythm track. Indeed, lead singer Kevin Shields’ claim that My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (1991) was a ‘Hip-Hop’ record is obliquely applicable to the sensibility of In Advance …, both in Stern’s ability to rip a rock guitar technique from its context and in her often self-reflexive lyrics. Whatever twists and turns she takes with her guitar, Stern comments as she does it: ‘Listen,’ she tells you, ‘I’m doing this.’ (Appropriately, Stern’s glistening finger-tapping is impressively reworked on Lil Mama’s Hip-Hop remix of ‘Absorb Those Numbers’, not included on the album.)

The baffling metanarrative of the album’s final track, ‘Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling’, is the fullest realization of Stern’s hermetic practice, of her intense rehearsal and voracious reading. Absurdly reminiscent of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (1936), Stern slowly narrates while her guitar provides the sound effects for the synaesthetic fairy tale. Among other things, the first two sections of Glenn Gould’s Solitude Trilogy (1967–77) are mentioned, and the clicking sound of a pair of glass slippers is disconcertingly mimicked. When Stern concludes, ‘The picture in my head is my reward/We must dream on’, the withdrawal into (and affirmation of) her imagination that the whole of In Advance … works towards is complete.