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)
Be careful if you see any songs from Marnie Stern's latest album in your Party Shuffle playlist--heads might explode. It isn't Stern's somewhat over-hyped technical prowess as a guitarist that's to blame here. Nor is it the fact that, apart from the first 30 seconds or so of album-opener "Prime," the entirety of This Is It hits you in the face like a steady stream of watery annihilation straight from Blastoise himself. Instead, I hypothesize that the sheer positive energy emanating from your tiny MacBook speakers would be too much to bear without some serious cranial warm-up laps beforehand.
Since the release two years ago of her debut album, In Advance of the Broken Arm, Marnie Stern has made it her business to deliver only the finest in DayGlo-hued cacophony to the discerning consumer. In Advance was revelatory in its pummeling enthusiasm. Stern's guitar sounded like it was being blowtorched alive and loving it, and her partner in crime Zach Hill's drums were mercilessly and inscrutably frenetic. The music had a punk aesthetic, but the melodies--when you could make them out--were all lollipops and sunrises. After the first few tracks, though, the album's sugar high wore off and what was left began to grate on the nerves.
With This Is It, however, Stern has gone a long way toward reigning in her sound. This isn't to say that the album sounds domesticated in any way--far from it. "Transformer," the album's first single, is as potent as anything else Stern has written. Nevertheless, she has also clearly taken a belt-sander to her writing's rough edges. The song boasts an honest-to-God inspiring hook and dynamics that point toward an evolution in style.
This increased level of musical maturity is evident throughout the album. "Ruler" brings to mind some kind of manic woodland drum circle, while "The Devil's in the Details" uses similarly percussive textures to subtler, more emotionally complex ends. "Clone Cycle" finds Stern cutting the distortion every once in awhile, which provides a welcome break from her traditional needles-in-the-red aural assault.
Zach Hill's drumming is also surprisingly more controlled and in-the-pocket on This Is It. While Hill is almost certainly one of the most talented living drummers in popular music (listen to any song by his main claim to fame, Hella, and you'll have no doubts), subtlety and restraint have never been his calling cards. Moreover, while Stern's music is nothing if not her own, it owes a significant amount of its character to Hill's spastic work behind the kit. On This Is It, however, Hill's performance serves more to underscore Stern's burgeoning songwriting skill than to steal the spotlight as it sometimes did on In Advance.
Without a doubt, This Is It is a step in the right direction. The songs are tighter, the arrangements more coherent and the album's cumulative impact more satisfying than in her previous work. Stern's trademark ebullience and stridency remain in full force, but her abilities to harness these qualities in order to craft a more substantial and meaningful piece of work have clearly sharpened with time.