Cacophony of the Lamb 

Marnie Stern has an ax to grind.

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Alongside “riffage” and “ax,” there is only one cheesier word in the guitar-player lexicon: “shred.” Shredders are the computer geeks of guitar, the type of players who hold speed and technicality at a premium and can’t decide if Yngwie Malmsteen is a god or a sweep-picking, high-kicking abacus. They pretend to have a transcendental rapport with deceased classical musicians (but when they’re slumming, they appreciate the blues) and wind up playing in bad fusion bands. They’re also virtually the only people who purchased albums released on Shrapnel Records.

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While often accused of shredding, Marnie Stern is no shredder. When City Weekly asks Stern about the ubiquitous description, she shatters the idyllic, breezy June day at a San Francisco pier to state very clearly: “I am not a shredder.

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Nor does she wail on guitar, at least in the traditional sense. Stern’s is a more nuanced style that ranges from intense to goofy, touches on angular and avant, and evokes images as divergent as Saturday morning cartoons and astrophysics. Ironically, though, she employs the shredders’ favorite method: tapping. Following up her denial, she says, “I’m a tapper. There’s a difference.”

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Tapping is an old technique that can be traced to 19th century composer Nicolò Paganini but was brought into popular culture by dentally challenged cancer dodger and recovering alcoholic Eddie Van Halen. Because of its use by shredders and hair farmers, it has become uncool. Stern employs the technique because “it’s just so much easier to use both hands” and “It’s fun”'not to mention its sundry musical possibilities.

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Speaking to the technique’s potential is the chasm between EVH’s widdly-woo on “Eruption” and the bad acid trips, like “Grapefruit,” on Stern’s debut CD, In Advance of the Broken Arm (Kill Rock Stars). While Van Halen would stand atop Shred Mountain to wank spectacular, Stern sounds like she’s playing from the bottom of a conical pit that touches the Earth’s crust. Her girlish, tortured voice and feverish, percussive guitar notes ascend in a reverse vortex, sounding like Puffy AmiYumi putting the lotion in the basket during an all-too-real performance of Silence of the Lambs.

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You see, there is a difference.

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Petite, effervescent Stern came to the guitar late in life'briefly in her teens, then seriously in college. “I always knew that it was something I wanted to do, but it was just a question of applying myself.” When she got serious, her style developed organically'“I never learned to play anyone else’s music, ever.” Now 31, Stern is a rare breed among today’s musicians: a bona fide guitar hero worthy of the “I’m not worthy” worship fans leave on her MySpace page. She’s been called everything from “outstandingly brilliant” to “fucking dope”'and one astute fan (actually a friend), commenting on a live photo of Stern, summed her up nicely when he said, “That’s you in the danger zone.”

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Stern maintains there is a difference here, too. “The Top Gun soundtrack'you know, ‘Highway to the Danger Zone?’” That was a big thing for me since I was 12.” She means it’s just a joke, she’s not really the hyperfocused, technical anorak guitarist. There’s more to her. “That’s the crazy thing, in general, in my personality. I’m really light and cheery, but the music, maybe, comes across as a little different.”

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Make that a lot different. For all the hoopla about her six-string acumen, In Advance of the Broken Arm isn’t a guitar album. It’s not even a rock album, per se. Its far-out aesthetic is simultaneously a child of Zappa, Beefheart and Can, a sibling to the Mars Volta, Don Caballero, Deerhoof and Stern’s tour mates Hella, and a parent of sonic innovators to come. That’s why, even as Stern is hailed as the new Queen of Shred Mountain, she’s also getting compliments about the music and songwriting'“… the year’s most exciting rock album” (The New York Times); “fascinating racket” (The Washington Post). No shredder has received such praise. Yet …

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“To me, the songwriting is much harder,” she says. “Every time I sit down [to write], it’s hard, hard, hard.” But, she agrees, it’s important enough to work on'between her other lessons. “I’m getting better at learning how to shred. I’ve been practicing for the tour, doing jam-outs with [bandmates] Zach and Robby. I’ve never done jam-outs before. It’s so fun!”

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Marnie Stern
nThe Urban Lounge
n241 S. 500 West
nMonday, June 25
n10 p.m.
n24Tix.com

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