Does Marnie Stern believe in an afterlife? Good question. Recall a moment from her Tuesday show at the ’Sco: “There’s a place we go when we all die,” she yelps seconds before being swallowed by a wash of raw overdrive. The noise-punk authenticity in her drowned-out voice might have ended the conversation right there, but then a dimpled grin flickers across her face as if to say, “But who believes that crap?” Before anyone could deconstruct her cynicism, she was already halfway through another arpeggiated solo. Oh, well — the moment has passed. Her views on divine providence, like most other subjects, are no clearer.
But it hardly matters when her playing is so mesmerizing. Stern is a guitarist best known for her finger-tapping technique reminiscent of ’80s virtuosos like Eddie Van Halen and Stanley Jordan (the latter bringing the technique to jazz). Making a hair-metal centerpiece look cool again has landed Stern a slot on several best-of lists and gigs at South by Southwest. Her three albums of abrasive indie rock echo labelmates Sleater-Kinney and the guitar work of St. Vincent, but Stern avoids becoming sound-alikes by incorporating odd meters and polyrhythms borrowed from progressive rock. They precede a recently released fourth disc, The Chronicles of Marnia, which presents Stern with her defenses lowered, but doesn’t compromise on rich hooks. It was from this album that she drew the majority of her concise set Tuesday night.
If you’ve ever heard thrash metal emanating from the upper floors of Wilder during late afternoons, then you have a sense of MEAT, Stern’s opener and supposedly Oberlin’s loudest band. The three College seniors and one recent graduate pounded out their tunes, all manic drum fills and face-melting wah-wah, with nervous stoicism and a few muddy tones. However, this couldn’t diminish the joy derived from watching singer and College senior Quentin Steele bellow his drug-hazed lyrics as he spearheaded his group’s sonic assault (their title is justly deserved). MEAT was a great pick-me-up before Stern’s imperfect but ultimately pleasing set.
Backed only by bassist Nithin Kalvakota and a drummer, the responsibility was on Stern to imbue the songs with adequate power. Unfortunately, she seemed low on energy and slightly inebriated (visible onstage were an empty beer and a half), peeling off a handful of sloppy licks and bantering onstage with a glazed demeanor. Luckily, the band turned spilled beer into the evening’s fallback joke. Perhaps it was just one of those nights.
Stern tightened her act in the show’s later half, barreling through a string of her latest songs with hardly a pause in between. On “Year Of The Glad,” named after David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (the best cut from Chronicles), her trio sounded like a six-piece group thanks to masterful hand-eye coordination. Stern tapped, triggered “oh ee” vocal loops, and sang while the drummer cobbled together an interlocking Graceland-esque swing. The morose build of “Hell Yes” toed in and out of 5/4; “All I’ve got is time!” was the catchy refrain. With time in such ample supply, Stern could have added a few more songs to a show running less than an hour — with encore.