The lush tapestry Garbus weaves is one that’s entirely her own.
Charles Ubaghs 2009
Lo-fi (meaning low fidelity audio) is this year’s buzzword among certain circles of the indie universe. Wander into any soon-to-be gentrified urban area or sprawling suburb on either side of the Atlantic and you’ll find a growing number of scraggly youths busily recording on cheap mics and battered laptops, revelling in the sonic imperfections and static hiss that pockmark their DIY slacker pop and punk songs.
A quick scan of Merrill Garbus’ bio could easily lump her in with the new lo-fi set. BiRd-BrAiNs, her debut LP as tUnE-YaRds, was recorded on a digital tape recorder and pieced together with a free, shareware recording program. It took the New England native over two-and-a-half years to create, and she stuck to the no-budget approach after its completion by initially releasing the album online via a pay-what-you-like system – though it’s since been picked up by 4AD here in the UK.
It’s a lo-fi tale par excellence. But while Garbus’ means were limited, BiRd-BrAiNs has more in common with the rich global fusion of Odyshape-era Raincoats and pop deconstructionists Dirty Projectors than anything produced by the current champions of cheap audio.
Working with little more than her ukulele, tribal drum sounds and a powerful set of vocal chords that could easily step into the ring with heavyweight RnB divas, Garbus takes snippets of melody and rhythm and pieces them together into a series of songs that flow smoothly despite their jutting angles, exposed seams and stylistic leaps. Hatari is one part early hip hop drumming and two parts John Cale viola and yodelling vocals. News mixes doo-wop harmonies and banjo with a rhythm section consisting of handclaps and what sound like glass bottles.
It doesn’t read like a standard recipe for pop success but outside of the odd misstep and the fact that her low-budget recording equipment doesn’t allow for much in the way of dynamics, Garbus’ musical mishmash is irresistible. She may approach her music like a card-carrying deconstructionist, but Garbus never veers far into cold, conceptual terrain. BiRd-BrAiNs rests on an emotional, intimate and ultimately accessible foundation. And while the album’s disparate pieces sound like they’ve been cherry-picked from across pop history, the lush tapestry Garbus weaves them into is one that’s entirely her own.