Does technical mastery yield good music? This is the question that will likely frame the early part of Marnie Stern’s musical career. Her guitar-string-tapping technique (think Eddie Van Halen’s intro to “Hot for Teacher”) is jaw-dropping, sending forth notes in such rapid succession that it allows us to conjure other fret-board wizards like Earl Scruggs, Les Claypool, and the aforementioned Van Halen brother. Indeed, if publicity and fate were fair and Ms. Stern willing, her photograph would grace the cover of Guitar World. But back to the original question: does guitar prowess foster good songs? If last year’s debut In Advance of the Broken Arm and this year’s This Is It… are used as measuring sticks, then the answer is a resounding yes.
Stern's guitar flurries, especially here on This Is It are seamlessly merged with strong songcraft and rhythmic interplay between John Reed Thompson (bass, keys) and Hella’s Zach Hill (drums). “Transformer,” the epitome of Stern’s sound, enters with furious, staccato guitar that bubbles into tumbling drums and her own thin, angelic howl. The resulting music is dense and up-tempo, making apt use of rhythm guitar overdubs to pace each song. While not terribly different from Broken Arm, This Is It offers greater restraint than its predecessor, allowing increased room for her songs to develop. “Ruler,” for example, channels between ferocious rock and dream-pop, while the rousing rallying cry of the album’s opener “Prime” -- where Stern pleads “Defenders get onto your knees” -- rides the surge of a single note. Elsewhere, “Vault” explodes from standard fare, campy teen-rock into a magnificent, slow-ringing chant. These devices, while so compelling throughout the entire album, also afford a slight drawback: Stern’s guitar work, being so central to her music, inhibits much variety within the songs. On a few songs, the listener can recognize a pattern to her sound that involves some combination of firebrand guitar and her vocal hoots.
Being the most emblematic and contentious instrument of rock ‘n’ roll, the guitar has transformed the way we hear music. It has electrified us with elaborate solos, shaken us from our feet with power chords, and charmed us with humble rhythm. Marnie Stern’s use of the guitar, however, still feels different. With the siren’s alarm and urgency of her rousing performances, it’s as easy to come away awe-inspired as it is to be engaged. That she is able to incorporate these technical talents into solid songwriting is what makes This Is It the success that it is. And while Marnie Stern can shred with the best of them, she proves on this album that she doesn’t have to in order to make her point.