In a March article entitled "Guitar Heros, Make That Heroines, in Indie Rock," The New York Times' Will Hermes breathlessly signed off on Marnie Stern's playfully virtuosic debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm. A month before, writing for Pitchfork Media, Brandon Stousy praised the record by beginning with an anecdotal introduction about a friend who assumed Stern—a woman—wasn't playing guitar on her own record. Both writers, then, acknowledged the most interesting question without actually addressing it: Would Stern's reception have been different if her name had been Martin or Michael? Or, biologically, did her two X's give her an editorial leg-up?
Short answer: Of course. Long answer? Slow down, we're getting there.
Released on Kill Rock Stars, In Advance of the Broken Arm certainly features a new voice for the standard indie rock set—a frantic, two-hand tapped style of firework guitar playing. Boy or girl, the shredding on In Advance feels undeniably "new," especially for the Pitchfork faithful or Times morning readers. Stern's idols, including Orthrelm fret-flayer Mick Barr, have been co-opting the framework of classically trained wankers and Guitar Center virtuosos for years now. But Barr, like Spencer Seim of Stern-cohorts Hella, never employed such a bright, playfully crazed technique (she practices a minimum of three hours a day, by the way) in such a melodic and largely accessible context.
Indeed, Stern opts for lightness over density, especially on tracks like "Every Line Means Something," where her Fender Jazzmaster buzzes and swarms with lean counterpoints and bone-thin phrases. It's this lively, light character that draws attention to her reedy, adorable yelp, it chasing the guitar and the guitar chasing it. In short, only a girl could have pulled off this exact sound.
But that doesn't discount how great that sound is: In Advance of the Broken Arm is nooked and crannied to high-heaven, packed with so many intricate surprises that every listen feels fresh and revealing. Eventually, one arrives at the neatness in the chaos, and at the very least, a respectful eye for the blissed-out pop moments Stern nails with such bravura. It's a truly fantastic record.
If these same sounds had been on the last Orthrelm record, the world would have applauded away. As they did with Stern, they would have likely called him "exciting" and "new." But would he have earned the same disbelief ("Really, that's a guy playing?!?"), and would he have been lauded (rather sensationally) as a barrier breaker? Let's suffice it to say the Times wouldn't have written about "Guitar Heroines, Make That Heroes, in Indie Rock."
Since the March release of In Advance, Stern has earned her doubters, given all of the hype, no matter its source: Earlier this year, people were alternately exhilarated and let way down when, on stage, the clamorous backing band that shines all over In Advance (John-Reed Thompson and Hill himself) come out of an, uhh, iPod clipped to Stern's belt. One could argue that those doubters were disappointed because Stern and machine lacked proper rock androgens. After all, she was one girl on stage futzing with a Mini.
But the biggest disappointment of those sets came because the bright colors and bubble metal appeal of the record suddenly shrank to a much more compact scale, dwarfed in comparison to the roaring studio tracks.
Earlier this month, however, Stern embarked on her first tour with a full band that includes Hella's Hill and Robby Moncrieff of caffeinated Nintendo cover band The Advantage on second guitar. Now, with flesh playing the parts, the focus will hopefully shift from Stern's chromosomes and her interesting "lineup" to the rewarding quality of the songs themselves. Stern, it seems, is finally positioned to be much more than a badass girl with a flaming guitar. Now she can fill the role of virtuosic band leader—who just so happens to be a girl.
Marnie Stern plays Local 506 Wednesday, July 25, with Violet Vector & the Lovely Lovelies at 10 p.m. Tickets are $8.