The self-described week-long Marnie Stern Birthday tour came to Denver last night, and while it wasn't Marnie Stern's actual birthday, bassist Nithin Kalvakota predicted that when it is later this week in San Francisco, he and drummer Vince Rogers will be playing her songs while she would have to be wheeled onstage like a prop "Weekend at Bernie's style."
Something tells us that won't actually happen. Not because she won't be trashed, but because despite her complete nonchalance in general, she takes this music incredibly seriously. Once a song starts, she loses her otherwise-constant grin, singing with her eyes closed and her face screwed up in emotion.
Not to mention, she is also a blazingly talented guitar player. She could probably be too drunk to stand up and still get through her songs. Of course, ignoring the contributions of Kalvakota and Rogers, who are both able to do more than just keep up -- Rogers must have an invisible extra pair of arms or something -- would be suitably remiss.
Marnie and her band will not look back on this as one of their favorite shows. The crowd was receptive but on the small side, and, as improved as Moe's sound may be, it simply could not handle the cacophony of this music. Her precise guitar work often came through as one long piercing shriek, the mix never quite sounded satisfying and the group spent every song break fighting feedback. Maybe that's why she kept her famously-lewd stage banter to a minimum, making only one genitalia reference. She did end the birthday tour bit, still grinning, by saying, "It's the last one so we're celebrating pretty hard."
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There is a tomorrow-never-comes, go-for-broke-every-time feel to Stern's music, especially last year's breathtaking Marnie Stern. She may be wry in demeanor, but she's creating some of the most suffocatingly brilliant music on the planet. The narrative, as her fans will already know, is that this was her autobiography, the album on which she dealt with the deepest part of herself; it is a consistently cathartic affair, a word you definitely could not use to describe previous efforts. And the way it gets there is by this inexplicable convergence between all those technical notes and some kind of innate beauty that rises delicately to the top, especially on songs like "For Ash" and "Transparency is the New Mystery."
Those two cuts ended her set. And we never reached that second level, whether it was the sound issues or Stern's voice, which is showing the effects of singing such taxing melodies night after night.
Stern is co-headlining this tour with Tera Melos, which had the closing slot here in Denver. That band's own brand of note-overload worked much better in Moe's, in large part because the various parts of their songs are not tearing against each other as Stern's are. Tera Melos was able to deliver much closer to CD quality, the dual vocals of Nick Reinhart and Nathan Latona came through clear and strong, carrying the melody over the precise crush of notes.
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That vocal strength is a new development for the math-rock pioneers: 2010's Patagonian Rats marked the first time the band seemed to place much value in sung melody. It's a great improvement, lending the songs through-lines they lacked on some earlier stuff.
It's hard to tell in these situations, but it seemed Stern and Tera Melos were equal draws here in Denver -- the crowd was a bit more raucous for the closing set, but that was also the more logical response.
Locals Lil' Slugger opened the proceedings with their own brand of tangled time signatures and ankle-breaking discord. The band, five strong with two drummers, is capable at times of achieving something like beauty. But none of them seem to actually be able to keep up with their own songs -- almost every dime-turned transition left at least one musician behind by half a step. When they nail it, though -- some full stop suddenly transformed into an eruption of guitar and crash cymbal -- it's a hell of a thing.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: Marnie Stern was my favorite album of 2010. "The Things You Notice" makes me cry about once every three times I hear it. Random Detail: You can follow the Marnie Stern and Tera Melos tour on the former's blog, The Vagina Monoblog. By the Way: The venue (in response to illicit filming, perhaps?) abruptly cast Marnie Stern and her band into an epileptic light show. Kalvakota asked that it be stopped on the grounds that they needed to see their instruments and Stern said the following exact phrase: "Holy doodle that was crazy!"