Pygmalion’s Friday headliner is tUnE-yArDs, an adventure in music that was born in the mind of Merrill Garbus. Tune-Yards is eclecticism taken all the way up to ten. These are sounds drawn from a multitude of genres and then smashed together with such ferocity that the resulting mosaic still sounds like breaking glass. Garbus cobbles together sounds from pop, electronica, indie, world, afro-beat and other genres to create music that intentionally doesn’t fit anywhere. She uses vocal, instrumental and percussive loops on top of each other to create intricate sonic textures. The end result is a vibrant, robust sound that feels like improvisation, but is anything but random.
Merrill Garbus hails from New England and grew up in Connecticut. After attending Smith College for liberal arts, she moved to Montreal and played with the band Sister Suvi. In 2009, Garbus put out BiRd-BrAiNs, the first album under the Tune-Yards name. After its release, she moved to Oakland, California, and joined forces with bassist Nate Brenner.
Garbus’ established her independent personality as an artist all at once, by recording BiRd-BrAiNs entirely on a hand-held voice recorder. The album exemplifies indie lo-fi with its fuzzy sound and disjointed lyrics. Garbus found fame in 2011 with her second album, W H O K I L L, and the tracks “Bizness” and “Gangsta.” W H O K I L L is colorful, effervescent, indie-dance music. It’s still lo-fi, but high noise, with consistent but varietal percussion and myriad samplings of instruments and sounds from across the musical spectrum. Garbus shows that she is capable of more thematic songwriting, and her lyrics are unabashed and full of swagger. Garbus likes topics such as self-empowerment and class injustice, and her music has a strong feminist vibe. With her relocation to Oakland, she experienced different crime rates and social issues than she had before, addressed on tracks like “Gangsta.” But instead of letting heavy issues weigh her down, she takes a more whimsical approach, dipping in and out of her chosen subjects like waves. She concerns herself with such things, but remains unburdened by them, and retains positivity.
This attitude exploded full-force with her third release, nikki nack, in 2014. The record met with stellar reviews from musical authorities like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Consequence of Sound, and solidified Garbus as an indie favorite. If W H O K I L L was an announcement, nikki nack is a proclamation. Tune-Yards’ third effort shines and bounces with triumphant diversity and frivolity. As Garbus had spent some time in Kenya between the two albums, nikki nack features a tribal feel, with African-influenced percussion on top of the mainstay bounce-back vocal loops and wacky sonic miscellany, best heard in the single, “Water Fountain.”
With nikki nack, Garbus reached a thematic culmination in her songwriting. Her focus landed on exploration of self-awareness and confidence in individuality. She responds to darkness and trouble in the world with the title of the album’s first track: “Find a New Way.” In “Time of Dark,” she tells us, “There will never be a mountain that I cannot climb.” She wrestles with her new-found fame in “Real Thing,” but ultimately just pokes fun at it. And with “Hey Life,” Garbus creates a Tune-Yards anthem with a song that is so vivacious, it can barely be contained:
“Hey life, I love you so much I scream and shout, but I’m one foot in, one foot out, just kinda like running on a roundabout, you know – Now I don’t wanna run out, but I’m runnin’ runnin’… I don’t know where to go, but I can’t seem to go slowly, no. I don’t wanna run out, so I’m runnin’ runnin,’ Hey, hey, hey, hey, life! Why do you keep me around?”
Tune-Yards is an act that definitely builds itself up as one amazing show.
I saw Tune-Yards perform at Pitchfork Music Festival of 2014. I was there that year in part to see Sun Kil Moon and Sharon von Etten, both singing-songwriting acts of a decidedly more somber nature. Those two played on the Friday of the festival, and left me still too contemplative the following afternoon. That lingering mood, coupled with my hangover haze, found my mind treading water for the first half of that Saturday. Tune-Yards went on in the late afternoon and thoroughly woke me up.
Tune-Yards reproduces the feel of their recorded music exceptionally well; their stage presence is just as large and their outfits just as loud. Garbus is even more of a formidable force on stage as she is in the studio. She simultaneously roared and sang. She created impromptu vocal loops on the spot and controlled them simultaneously, while also smashing on gigantic drums. Her backup vocal performers chanted and swayed as they shook assorted rhythm instruments, almost like an ancient tribal rain dance. It was a chaotic and celebratory experience that tapped into a very base level of satisfaction, with a kind of neanderthal feel. My cohorts and I obliged and jammed out in true caveman fashion. The performance was hot and vibrant and simply alive. When they played “Hey Life,” I shook off a bit of humanity for a moment, and enjoyed being in the sun, being with friends, and just being. They did, and we did, and that is what Merrill and tUnE-yArDs is all about.
tUnE-yArDs is playing after Patrick Watson Friday at Krannert Center’s Tryon Festival Theatre at 8:45 pm. Tickets are still on sale.