Minimalist brutality meets rich arrangements on Merrill Garbus’ second album.
Martin Longley 2011
New England-born and Oakland-based artist Merrill Garbus enjoys making music on her own. Well, almost. Shunning old-school studio sessions, she embraces her Californian bedroom's hard drive splicing tools. At least this is the public face she chooses to display as tUnE-yArDs. Garbus has a penchant for painting said face with bright tribal-style streaks, to match the urban-hollering exultation of her somewhat robust singing style. Her live performance, due to her very physical presence, tends to be almost traditional-entertainer, but her recorded oeuvre is able to take full advantage of tumbling digital pile-up technology.
This second tUnE-yArDs album advances the concept of rampant collision, hiking the extremities up to a further level. Lo-fi meets hi-fi, as big drum thunder under-booms sometime dictaphone-style scratchiness in the vocal department. There's a pronounced field-recording intention, recalling Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica period, as well as the ethnic vocal capturings of New York composer Meredith Monk. It's also possible that Garbus has simply experienced these methods at source, whether through the Baka pygmies, the far-northern Sami people or the indigenous Americans of her own land. Whichever way, she is becoming expert at polyphonic hocketing, either through these tribal folks or maybe just via The Slits. Her vocals ring around the ears, scampering across the stereo field like steel-toe-capped pixies. This is an album that's best aired on headphones, at critical volume.
Garbus sets up a jagged jacking from one section to another, this minimalist brutality paradoxically ripe with rich arrangements, mashing up punk guitar riffs, rickety industrial percussion and saxophone belches. Gangsta has a great bass hook, Powa comes close (but not too close) to a conventional rock song, and Riotriot rams together flood organ, bangin' drums and spiked guitar, crashing into a sudden vocal a cappella. A rushing gust of a chorus invests Bizness with a mixture of prettiness and desperate atonality, as Garbus belts "don't take my life away" at incessant high speed. She even tackles a lullaby (of sorts) with Wooly Wolly Gong. It's like we'd imagine music made by a dangerously bright child, perfectly in touch with its razor-sharp instincts. Or it's a car-crash in the midst of a tropical rain forest.