Last year Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney, may they rest in peace) wrote a playful review of the video game Rock Band. Instead of simply throwing down her hipper-than-thou card and snarking that social simulacrum, which she of all people is certainly entitled to do, she concluded by extending the game a cautious benefit of the doubt: “These days, it might be easier to exalt the fake than to try to make sense of the genuine. But maybe by pretending to be in a band, there will be those who’ll find the nerve to go beyond the game, and to take the brave leaps required to create something real.” I hope her optimism is actualized and the Rock Band franchise will trigger a post-Velvet Underground-like wave of new acts, but she didn’t seem too convinced. With a similar measure of ambiguity, New York singer-songwriter Marnie Stern’s sophomore release, This Is It & I Am It & You Are It & So Is That & He Is It & She Is It & It Is It & That Is That, in a more perfect Union, would generate a next-gen crop of music nerds who appreciate technical, not just technological, musical skill.
Easily one of the most compelling records of 2008, This Is It is an intense 12-cut give-and-take between Stern’s six-string, Zach Hill’s frenetic drumming, and John-Reed Thompson’s bass. Hill’s virtuoso performances are notable on their own merits, but also because, unlike on most rock n’ roll records, they’re not the source of the songs’ rhythms. Instead, Hill’s drums interacts with, fleshes out, shades and circles Stern’s guitar work. She establishes the pace, manages how the tempo fluctuates, and marks the rhythm changes. The effect is a sophisticated, sometimes staggering, set of shape-shifting grooves.
While Hill’s production is similar to the stripped-down instrumentals of a band like Shellac, Stern and company’s style is more focused than that of Steve Albini’s band. But that style, unlike the work of a band like Sleater-Kinney, is uninterested in linear progression: This Is It lacks any concern with prolonged melodies, hooks or traditional pop-song structure. Stern occupies a unique niche and This Is It testifies to her band’s chops, confidence and raw talent. Tempos shift ruthlessly but without sacrificing any of the album’s coherency.
Lyrics are the only problematic aspect of the record: Though they add another level of texture, they feel more like pseudo-profound outbursts rather than refined statements. Examples of Stern’s koans include, “He was just one like a prime number, he was devoid of plus” (from “Prime”) and “The future is yourself, fill this part in” (from “Transformer”). Still, Stern inspires a mood of missionary zeal and This Is It is an opportunity to turn yourself into a raving rock n’ roll evangelical. It’s taut, aggressive, accomplished and is “it” in every way the title suggests. And that is that.