Fuzz, Thrash, and Roll: An Evening with Marnie Stern @ Rickshaw Stop [San Francisco]
E V Kain
In the heady, anything can happen heyday of post-graduation, I tour managed my friends’ band; which is to say that I took turns at the wheel and cashed in their drink tickets. They were under 21 and I was raised not to waste, so I got wasted. In this whirlwind run, our San Francisco stop was at the Rickshaw, notable in memory only for the hostility expressed by the bouncer at my underage compatriots’ smuggled Maker’s Mark. Headed back to the Rickshaw Stop recently for a evening with Marnie Stern and friends, the lack of subsidized intoxicants loomed disappointment, but I took comfort in the $20 in my pocket just burning to be gin. With low resources, the bands had to bring their share of conscious spinning songcraft to sink me into the moment. Good fortune ensured just that.
E V Kain kicked the night off proper with a reverb heavy set of jagged post-punk rhythms and washed out world melodies. A local outfit comprised of ex-members of Hella, Cigar, and Broken Bells, their chops shone clear through echo volleys and tribal poundings. The stage banter was equally seasoned, impassioned pleas for crowd engagement actually reciprocated, a heart warming rarity for the first act on a bill. The guitarist/vocalist brought reggae strums and biting barks, the bassist interlocking and escalating lines, but the MVP was the drummer managing an all front kit assault and coloring backup harmonies. Finding the sun-soaked middle ground between Talking Heads and Animal Collective, E V Kain shows promise, if not complete and unique style.
Before proceeding further, it’s time for another gratuitous personal tangent. For the past few years, I’ve been chasing a very particular sound, a melodic sugar rush, through decades and genres, trying to find its most distilled and intoxicating incarnation. The title that I’ve toyed with is “Jangle Pop,” borrowed from an 80s indie rock subgenre, sure, but appropriated for a more enlightened pursuit. With roots in Phil Spector girl groups and Lou Reed drug strum, torchbearers in The Smiths and shoegaze, the current indie rock scene is full of acts throwing back to these touchstones of fuzz, bounce, and pop. Most taken by the roster of Underwater Peoples Records, Wild Nothing, and the Dum Dum Girls, mention one of the major genre signifiers–lo fi, girl group harmony, scuzz, garage, beach pop–and I’m there.
This is all a roundabout way of stating that SISU is right up my alley. An offshoot of the aforementioned Dum Dum Girls, Sandra Vu left the drum kit behind to front this mixed group of psychedelic disciples. Continuing the lo-fi appropriation of Ronettes rhythm showcased in her day gig, SISU upped the ante with overlapping waves of distortion and New Order-esque synths, shimmering and sailing the songs wide open. On record, the tracks are polished and crisp, but the live show was less individual songs and more dense, day-glo soundscapes populated by pulsating beats and sugar sweet harmonies. Midway through a set full of self-deprecating asides, Sandra lost her guitar to technical difficulties and continued her first ever performance without an instrumental shield. Despite her assurances that we were missing a whole other level of sonic complexity, the tunes sounded just right.
A brief stroll outside, another hit of gin, and I primed for the main event, Marnie Stern herself. The crowd was buzzed, ready for it, and reached a fever pitch when she hit the stage. Flying right in, she unleashed fret acrobatics held steady over a bed of pop punk bass lines and drum beats. Simply playing solo, with her stadium sized riffs and yelped vocal lines, she could pass for a one piece Sleigh Bells, but the addition of a tight rhythm section firmly anchors her manic pixie woman sound. This is music to get you moving, to tear away the block and embrace pure exuberance.
Dipping into deep cuts throughout her catalog, most of the set focused on her recent release, Chronicles of Marnia [Kill Rock Stars]. More fleshed out and steeped in what–gasp!– can be considered good old fashioned structure, the record speaks to Marnie‘s maturation as a songwriter, while retaining the creative spark that guided her earlier work. She plays it harder and louder live, naturally, turning the “Thunderstruck” channeling intro of “Nothing Is Easy” into a thundering rave and raising the title track to a cathartic rallying cry.
Despite forays into precociousness and eccentric vocal melodies that can recall tUnE-yArDs, Marnie‘s peers are more the ferocious cock rockers of the 70s than the mild mannered indie crowd of today. Cramming Zeppelin solos into ever unwinding scales, Marnie didn’t waste a single chord or melody, instead taking every opportunity to shred. Ripping and rocking every note, her vocals were confident and fretwork muscular. She lost lyrical emotion at times, due to intense digit concentration, but the sacrifice was easily forgiven.
Like her music, her asides to the audience toed the line between raw thrash and playful charm. After claiming that “Vagina lips are overrated,” she discussed the merits of a mani-pedi with her comic counterpoint/bass player, concluding that everyone should be so lucky to be pampered. Not shy of the spotlight or unassuming, Stern swaggers like she’s meant to be there, and rightfully so. A champion of spindly guitar virtuosity, the 37-year-old New Yorker stands as one of the premier six string aces in the current climate. She is St. Vincent on steroids, the idiosyncratic arrangements dialed up to overdrive. In an age all too lacking of guitar heroics, her brand of headbangers are more than welcome, they are required.
More than anything, Stern is rock and roll, strong and true. If you could bottle Jimmy Page‘s electric frenzy into a bubblegum spiral, you’d have Marnie Stern. I sought an evening of face melting transcendence and thanks to Marnie and her comrades (and the gin), that’s exactly what I got.