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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

March 12, 2009 By:
M.J. Fine, JE Feature
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Talk about feast or famine: After a few months with only one or two notable shows, two fiercely inventive singer-songwriters played Philadelphia on the very same night.

The enigmatic and nomadic Kristin Hersh brought her mighty Throwing Muses to World Café Live on March 10. It's been six years since the band's last release and nearly as long since their last show.

At about the same time eight El stops away, Marnie Stern was due to set Fishtown's Kung Fu Necktie on fire -- figuratively, of course, with her pyrotechnic guitar.

Stern first blew minds with 2007's "In Advance of the Broken Arm," a compelling argument that technical skill and artistic freedom don't have to be mutually exclusive terms. Who knew that one woman could simultaneously play guitar like a metal warrior and sing like a forest sprite on helium?

It was so genius that I feared repeated listens would cause permanent psychological damage. Her second album is even better.

With a title inspired by philosopher Alan Watts, "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 as virtuosic as its predecessor and twice as lyrically accomplished. Stern, who tosses out notes even faster than she sings, is lucky to have the support of Zach Hill, the rare man who can keep up, both on drums and in the producer's seat.

Bassist John Reed Thompson ably rounds out this power trio.

But instead of putting everything up front, Stern throws listeners for a loop. "Prime," the first song on "This Is It," begins with a clipped rhyme accompanied only by a clipped beat. The first time she speeds through the verse, the standout line is "All I can see are dolphins/I feel close to them and no one else."

By the time you've finished puzzling over that, she and the band plunge in for an alarming do-over. The second time around, you see the line about the dolphins turns out to be a red herring. The third trip's jazzier, and by the end of the fourth and final run, you're pumping your fists as Stern chants, "Defenders, get onto your knees/Defenders, get onto your knees," the album's first real rallying cry.

It doesn't take too long to get to the second one. The very next song, "Transformer," bursts forth with the Stern's trademark shredding, then makes room for Hill's controlled pounding.

Stern's agitated vocals initially join the fray as just another instrument, but everything else stops as she urges, "The future is yours, so fill this part in." It's the heart of the song, the heart of the record and the heart of Stern's whole inspiring ethos.

But it's the re-entrance of the guitar and drums -- in all their glorious chaos -- that gives the heart a reason to keep going.

"The Package Is Wrapped" offers another catchy mantra in "You rearrange your mind," and "Clone Cycle" makes much the same case through Stern's alternately kittenish and robot vocals. Where "In Advance of the Broken Arm" seemed too rich for regular rotation, the positive reinforcement of "This Is It" only improves on repeat.

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