tUnE-yArDs: Prefix Artist to Watch (P.A.W.)

    Seeing tUnE-yArDs perform several times at this year’s SXSW gave me a heightened appreciation of Merrill Garbus’ specific brand of art. Her music takes on a life of its own when you’re experiencing it live, witnessing this mishmash of syncopated rhythms, vocal samples, and all-sax rhythm section at its inception. Even to a group of people who had been on their feet in the unforgiving Texas sun for 12+ hours, each song’s energy was palpable and contagious. And I think it all stems from what I feel is the most appealing aspect of her music: it’s sophisticated but retains the fresh-faced glee of a little kid pounding on pots and pans with a wooden spoon. Garbus has a unique ability to make everything she plays sound like she’s discovering the amazing things she can do and can’t wait to share them with you. And for the listener, that’s as close as you can get to an ideal experience.

    w h o k i l l is Garbus’ second album as tUnE-yArDs, a moniker that’s a bitch to type but happens to be a great visual example of how her music sounds: jagged, jarring, and uneven, but able to cohere into a gorgeous whole. “Gangsta” is a particularly great example of her ability to create accessible avant-garde music. Garbus layers vocals indebted to her interest and training in Western and sub-Saharan African music in ways that reinforce the lyrical content without being gimmicky. The vocals sound just enough like an ambulance siren to conjure the image in the listener’s mind — as do the pound-on-the-door drums and jarring car-horn saxophones that round out the cacophony of the city.

    Lyrically, Garbus is peerless. She packages ruminations on what it means to be on the wrong end of the socio-political power spectrum into thoughts that are easily digestible, but richly original; her scathing critiques of gender roles are relatable without stumbling into milquetoast singer-songwriter territory. On her debut album BiRd-BrAiNs, standout track “Fiya” contains an especially evocative set of questions: “What if my own skin makes my skin crawl?/ What if my own flesh is suburban sprawl?” w h o k i l l‘s “Powa” expands on these thoughts, addressing the ways insecurity gets bound up in sexuality and gender roles in the couplet “Baby, bring me home to bed/ I need you to press me down before my body flies away from me.” It’s an elegant, idiosyncratic way to convey an internalized notion that your body doesn’t belong to you, linking the thought to something akin to an out-of-body experience.

    “My Country” puts a West African spin on the melody of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” and concludes with a multi-tracked chorus that sounds like a child’s playground taunt, capped with a knife-twist of a line: “The worst thing about living a lie is just wondering when they’ll find out.” Inverting the familiar is the go-to ace up Garbus’ sleeve, and she does it in ways that are clever without being too self-conscious or blunt. Some subtle syncopation and a key change are all that’s needed to put a cheeky masque over a familiar patriotic dirge — well, that, and a kick-ass rhythm section.

    The music world is flush with artists shoehorning avant-garde characteristics and international tropes into familiar pop song structures. It sounds like an easy recipe that anyone with a yen to create “accessible avant-garde” music can follow, but making songs like these sound cogent and organic takes a level of finesse that not all musicians possess. BiRd-BrAiNs hinted — and w h o k i l l confirms — that Merrill Garbus has this finesse in spades.