Marnie Stern & Zach Hill

Originally published in Plan B magazine, October 2008 –


Marnie Stern – 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)


Zach Hill – Astrological Straits (Ipecac)

Marnie Stern shares with Joanna Newsom and Bjork that happy delicacy of both feature and phrase that tempts critics to the language of intuition and ingenuity: if spiders were cheerleaders, if guitars had hearts, etcetera. But Stern, like her equally overpixified counterparts, is a virtuoso, not an ingénue: she seems more invested in the concrete geometry of technique than the metonymic logic of poetry. As she described her process shyly over and over, during the press storm on In Advance Of The Broken Arm, she emphasised the importance of both constant practice and influence – Eddie Van Halen, Carrie Brownstein, Spencer Seim, Ian Williams, and three hours’ playing a day, taken like medicine, like clockwork.

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 is equally virtuosic. Stern draws on a language of exploration rather than experience; “I’m like a raging animation,” she howls on ‘Steely’. “I wonder what it’s like to be one?” ‘The Crippled Jazzer’ finds her paralysed outside of interaction by a surfeit of possibilities: “stuck in composing, finding an angle: hellbent on choosing”, she intones. Yet the album’s emotional dimension is notably richer than that of its predecessor, and on this record, unlike the last, Stern is willing to make choices without playfully undermining them. “Here’s what I want, here’s what I want: someone to come at me. Someone to design. Pull me from the dream world, pull me from the dream world”, she pleads on ‘Simon Says’. It’s a torch song for humans from the woman who sings on ‘Prime’, the album’s opening track, “all I can see is dolphins; I feel close to them and no one else.” That lyric, which on the first album would have been a celebration, on This Is It more closely resembles a panic attack.

This time around, Stern is wearing her goofy soft rock influences, always discernible in live performance – possibly thanks to Robbie Moncrief, her touring guitarist, whose noodly brilliance sets off the technicolour in her tapping – on her album sleeve. ‘Vault’ sounds like nothing so much as Pat Benatar; ‘Shea Stadium’ is deconstructed Cheap Trick. In response, Zach Hill’s drums are characterised here by more straightforward patterns: where on In Advance they often countered Stern’s tapping, pointing out alternate readings and rhythmic possibilities, here they are in collusion with the guitar lines, reinforcing rather than questioning. The result is extraordinary: an elevation of technique to its own certainties and stories. The closest parallel is possibly Joanna Newsom’s work with Van Dyke Parks on Ys; but where Newsom, ever the philologist, allows syllabic quantities to guide the flow of both narrative and arrangement , it’s the geometry of Stern’s idiosyncratic sonics that rules here. And, on this record at least, Hill’s work is intrinsic to the process, most clearly on ‘Clone Cycle’, which sees Stern solemnly describing her own take on the Pythagorean qualities of numbers, pushed into slant rhyme by the scansion of Hill’s patterns.

Since they first collaborated on Mick Barr’s Shred Earthship project in 2006, Stern and Hill have found an uncanny shared understanding. Each self-taught as an adult, they are the newest additions to experimental rock’s growing roster of bandleaders – directors and performers whose collaborations deeply explore their own personal preoccupations, and a form more closely associated with jazz than with rock, Beefheart and Zappa notwithstanding. But of late, Mick Barr, Mike Patton, Thurston Moore, Brians both Gibson and Chippendale, and Yamataka Eye have followed this path while maintaining their involvement with more egalitarian forms. Hill too maintains both Hella and Holy Smokes, while this year sees his first solo record, Astrological Straits, which allows him free rein as a multi-instrumentalist and composer.

The bluster and splatter of Hill in full flow, combining influences as disparate as punk and big-band in syncretic rhythmic licks, will be familiar to those who have encountered his work with Holy Smokes, particularly their 2004 project, the book and soundtrack Masculine Drugs/ Destroying Yourself Is Too Accessible: Old Children’s Ramblings for the New and Improved Child and Hypocritically Dexterous Hippy. For Astrological Straits, however, Hill is joined by old cohorts Robbie Moncrief and John-Reed Thompson from Stern’s band, and Chino Moreno, with whom he works in fantastical experimentalists Team Sleep. New additions to the collaborative roster come from Les Claypool of Primus and both Dean Spunt and Randy Randall of No Age. But It’s the evolution of Hill’s relationship with Stern that gives rise to the sweetest fruit of this new offering. The 33-minute long track, ‘Necromancer’, which constitutes the entire second part of the album, is a redrawing of the pair’s relationship on This Is It, and an eloquent response to ‘Clone Cycle’. ‘Necromancer’ finds Stern narrating an improvised psych freakout for piano and percussion (Marco Benevento, on piano, admirably keeping up). The track is one continuous take, a sinuous exposition of the possibilities of collaboration, and the grace there is in relationship.


~ by bunnyrabble on March 26, 2009.

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