Last week, I finally got my chance to watch an artist that I had placed on my short list of must-see acts. A couple of years ago I came across tUnE-yArDs at the urging of a friend who had recently seen them live. Their 2009, debut release BiRd-BrAiNs sufficed as singer Merrill Garbus’s experiment in vocal expression.
The album was harsh at times. A veritable mind-fuck mixture of vocal loops, African-influenced rhythm sections, ukulele riffs complete with audio samples of Garbus’s toddler eating blueberries. Describing tUnE-yArDs to someone who hasn’t heard it proves difficult. The concept sounds pretentious and artificial. What could a white chick from New England know about tribal rhythms and hip-hop hooks?
But then you hear it, and you realize that the mash-up works. This chick may actually know her shit. I’m not saying BiRd-BrAiNs was a non-stop joy ride. There are moments where the mad scientist’s potion proves trying for even the most patient and open-minded listener. But the disc has legitimate successes. “Hatari” sums this argument up perfectly. A recurring ukelele riff that mimics the thumb piano, or kalimba, accompanies a simple drum line that sounds as if it was beaten out upon a piece of aluminum siding.
“Hatari”’s verses are broken up by Garbus’s wailing vocal loops. The arrangements are primal, building upon one another like the cries of an entire asylum. The madness gives way, leaving Garbus screaming a capella: “There is a natural sound that wild things make when they’re bound/It rumbles in the ground, gurrah gurrah we all fall down/But when you hear the sound, ten thousand voices lost and found/Your rumble in the ground, gurrah gurrah we all fall down.”
Garbus is wild, and her sound is a natural one, albeit abrasive and unique. Every song feels like a journey deep into the subconscious of a human that has experienced some radically different sounds in her time than you have. BiRd-BrAiNs culminates in the joyous romp, “FIYA”. The lyrics address Garbus’s lack of confidence regarding her physical appearance. It resolves with her inner acceptance and the joy that comes with the realization that she deserves to be loved.
2011 brought W H O K I L L, a more accessible and listener-friendly follow-up. The album is every bit as adventurous as the debut, but it comes across as if Garbus has figured out what tUnE-yArDs is all about. It’s no longer an experiment, but a controlled chaos. The hip-hop influence is heavier on W H O K I L L. The recurring beats and addictive vocal hooks help to make this album a repeat listen in a way that BiRd-BrAiNs never accomplished.
All of this was on display last Wednesday at Rhino’s in Bloomington. Garbus was in complete control. When you hear an album like W H O K I L L, your first response will inevitably be—well surely she can’t do this live. But she does. The loops, while perhaps not as complex as album renditions, are every bit as impressive and satisfying. Her voice is chilling, with a range that rivals anyone’s. She has the unique ability to sound like a male blues singer one moment and release Mariah Careyesque squeals the next.
tUnE-yArDs is a captivating sight to behold. I found myself grinning, speechless, high-fiving friends as she ran through a non-stop sprint of a setlist that covered all of the favorites from W H O K I L L: “Powa”, “Bizness”, “Gangsta”, and “My Country” were all winners. With the exception of “Doorstep”, I heard just about everything that my heart desired. Garbus didn’t play much from BiRd-BrAiNs, but her rendition of “FIYA” was one that I will not forget for a long time.
Rhino’s was pretty full for a Wednesday night. The audience knew the songs, screaming along and dancing throughout. A handful of students near the front sported face-paint similar to that worn by Garbus and her bandmates. Though the show ran later than expected, no one appeared to mind, partying until well after midnight. I recommend that anyone within ear shot capitalize on the opportunity to witness the unique live performance that tUne-yArDs offers.
Written by Rob Peoni
Photograph by Brett McGrath
Watch tUne-yArDs latest video for “Gangsta” here: New Video: tUnE-yArDs “Gangsta”.