tUnE-yArDs is a sort-of music project fronted by Merrill Garbus, former puppeteer, Connecticut native, and virtual one-woman band. In 2009, Garbus released an album called BiRd-BrAiNs. It was recorded on a handheld voice recorder, basically the holy grail of lo-fi.
That's not to say tUnE-yArDs' debut didn't have an individual sound; the album is a mix of ukulele-driven songs, field recordings, and bursts of noise. Despite its barely controlled chaos, BiRd-BrAiNs managed to get the attention of record label 4AD. It also led tUnE-yArDs to open for Dirty Projectors on their victory-lap tour for Bitte Orca.
It would be a pat assumption to say Garbus's sophomore album, W H O K I L L, was inspired by her tour mates' West African guitar stylings. Garbus has been a devotee of African music since she was a child. Her respect for her influences is striking: talking to the Chicago Tribune, Garbus expressed her hesitations about appropriating music from a culture she's apart from. When she says, "My problem with taking from the cultures that I do is that those cultures are under-represented and under-served," and asks, "Do I think I'm giving back?" it's pretty clear that she still has a liberal arts student's compunctions about running roughshod over a complex post-colonial world.
But her music itself expresses that best.
The first song off W H O K I L L is a shot across the bow. After a brief introduction, "My Country" rides in on a strong double bass drum figure and the (soon to be familiar) looped melisma of Garbus's contrapuntal voice. The song deals with the authenticity deficit posed by America's presumed image as a beacon of freedom versus its reality of inequality: "We cannot have it. / Well why is there juice dripping under your chin? / When they have nothing, why do you have something?" But "My Country" isn't merely a critique of America; its title, for one, claims this troubled nation as part of Garbus' identity, not an enemy state to overthrow. As well, the song's mini-refrain of "The worst thing about living a lie / Is just wondering when they'll find out" sounds like it could be about America. More likely, it's the sort of identity-searching sentiment likely to be expressed by a mixed-up young person who's fixated on authenticity—someone like Garbus.
The song "Gangsta" dives into similar personal identity issues. With its humorously anachronistic title, the song seems right away like a weird joke. But it comes from a very honest place. The song’s twin questions, "What's a boy to do if he'll never be a gangsta?" and "What's a girl to do if she'll never be a Rasta?" speak to the confusing social spaces everyone must face when their desires fail to intersect with the pre-approved social packages that seem to be conferred at birth. You end up feeling always like an outsider. The rest of the song reinforces this notion, speaking to the danger of Garbus's "hood," an underdeveloped area of Oakland that's particularly alien to her East Coast sensibilities. "Never move to my hood, cause danger is crawling out the wood," she warns; yet she moved there. Garbus has studied African music and spent time there. She may not look like a Rasta, and she'd never claim to be one, but there's more to the struggle for identity than simply being born one way or another.
W H O K I L L's first single, "Bizness," is one of the album's most rangy songs. Lacking the punch of some of its siblings, it relies on a skittering melody made of looped tones, a solid bass line, and a simple snare drum beat. It is greater than its parts, though.
The song asks a simple question, which is vague enough to require an entire song to make sense of it: "What's the business?" It recalls the phrase—mentioned in the song—about giving someone the business, and it does seem that there's a violent undercurrent to the song, with its voluminous refrain, "Don't take my life away. / Don't take my life away." Yet—it's a joyful sounding song.
Its video offers a bit of insight: It starts with kids in a classroom devolving into a Where the Wild Things Areromp. The next scene resembles group kickboxing calisthenics and ends with the group’s catharsis through playful destruction. It all seems to signify the transformative power of anger—either being on the receiving end of it or dishing it out—and how it can actually be regenerative in its eventual defeat. The business just is the nasty, brutish life, but Garbus makes it sound palatable.
I saw tUnE-yArDs open for Dirty Projectors a couple years ago. The performance was raw and inspired, but I forgot about it as soon as the main act came on. I managed to remember to pick up BiRd-BrAiNs at the merch table on my way out, but I never expected to hear the music of tUnE-yArDs again: It was leagues away from comparable acts. Now that Garbus has more money and more experience, though, she's made the improbable leap to indie headliner in her own right. And it's just in time. Her music is so focused on personal identity, with its roots in accountability and authenticity, that it serves as a needed summer palate cleanser to all the pop performers who'd rather let their words—and not their music—do the talking.
Fuse May 31, 2011