tUnE-yArDs: BiRd-BrAiNs (4AD)
Released: November 16, 2009
Like all young, first-time parents – though perhaps more so – my mom and dad had concerns about my ability to adapt socially upon enrolling me in kindergarten. As it turns out, they had nothing to worry about – I was by all accounts a preternaturally precocious little brat – but in hindsight I can see why they might have harbored some trepidation. Not raised around very many children my own age and somewhat introverted – especially when left to my own devices – I spent much of my free time hiding out in my expansive bedroom closet, where I spent hours on end writing Hardy Boys fan fiction, designing magazines for the sixth-grade girl who lived upstairs, and doting over my cherished record collection. Admittedly, my portable phonograph mercilessly scratched every luckless piece of vinyl I laid under that unwieldy, cerise-hued needle – I can remember very vividly dust and scrapings collecting beneath it as clockwise revolutions dragged the clunky tone arm toward the out-groove – but I treasured every single Wings, Elton John, Steve Miller, and Billy Joel record my parents and their friends bought for (and sometimes unloaded on) me: Caribou and London Town from Nancy B. in Apartment A, or Ringo’s picture-sleeve 45 for “You’re Sixteen,” which I proudly took to school for show and tell. Without question, my adult habit of disappearing into books and music, particularly in trying, emotionally-draining periods, began here in my diffident, inward-looking childhood: others had fortresses constructed from throw pillows and disused bedding, lit up by bulky hand-held flashlights; I barricaded myself in an idyllic cathedral of words and sound.
BiRd-BrAiNs, the 2009 debut record from the tUnE-yArDs, evokes these childhood safe havens, right down to the cover's playful typographic games and appealingly folksy artwork, which looks as if it was designed with grade-school construction paper (though closer inspection reveals computer-generated Benday dots). Merrill Garbus, who refers to the tUnE-yArDs as a "project" as opposed to a full-fledged band, recorded it painstakingly over a period of two years on a garden variety office dictation machine, playing all of the instruments herself save one lone tenor saxophone part, then arranging and overdubbing tracks on Audacity, a free shareware assembling program. The album has the feel of Alan Lomax field recordings, or better yet, a more sophisticated version of the amateurish, homespun efforts that kids like me orchestrated utilizing our parents' battered old cassette players (in fact, Marriage Records issued the first edition of BiRd-BrAiNs in this anachronistic format, several months prior to 4AD's proper international release). During this two-year stretch of time, Garbus also worked as a nanny in a New England household – one of her young charges appears early on the album in a delightful cameo discussing the “freshness” of blueberries – so it’s not a stretch to wonder if some of these themes weren’t at the forefront of her mind. “I am sort of obsessed with memory triggers, how a song or a smell or a photo or whatever can bring you back to a time,” she told The Wounded Jukebox blog in 2010. “I also like the evolution, my own evolution as a human being. That I feel I have the same brain I did when I was seven years old. Those ‘scrapbooky’ things are definitely a part of my consciousness.”
Garbus' resourceful approach to recording is best described as sophisticated in aesthetic -- featuring complex chords, off-kilter harmonic progressions, and twisty melodies indebted to such far-flung sources as the Andrews Sisters and the "hocketing" vocal technique of Mbuti pygmies -- but catch-as-catch-can in execution. In addition to some tight beatbox break beats, the rhythm tracks are constructed via overlaying samples of ordinary household items (glasses, chairs, kitchen implements), while the main instrumentation is supplied by a ukulele, a very un-rock and roll instrument that Garbus says arose from necessity – aside from being easy to play, she had used it in the past to provide a backing soundtrack to her collegiate puppet shows. Of course, there too is an additional tie to childhood: because the strings are close together and the frets are easy for small fingers to navigate, it’s often the first guitar that young children are given to play. Most likely that wrinkle is fortuitous happenstance on Garbus' part, but even so, the taut percussiveness of her strumming, even more incisive than if she played a standard acoustic guitar, suits her jagged approach to rhythm, a unique gift that sets her firmly apart from most singer-songwriters. Furthermore, its peculiar timbre imbues the record with its often magical texture and atmosphere: note the otherworldly opening riff of the first song (“For You”), in which one section of an arpeggiated figure repeats the same plucked note: once on a fingered string, then again on an open one. And the instrument’s tendency to waver quickly out of pitch actually heightens the tension of the more frenetic moments, like the feverish climax of the sassy “Jamaican” or the chaotic skronk-fest that concludes “Safety,” suggesting a modest translation of the six-string anarchy of electric guitarists like Arto Lindsay and Marc Ribot.
Her uncanny blend of the earthy and the enchanting would mean nothing without the songs themselves, and it's here that Garbus really defines herself both as an artist, and as a woman. Most indie artists -- especially ones in the "lo-fi" wing -- tend to strike an ironic tone (think of early efforts from Liz Phair or the Magnetic Fields), while ones that affect childlike curiosity usually carry over those mannerisms into the lyrics (think Beat Happening, or better yet, the Moldy Peaches and Kimya Dawson's CD-R solo work). Garbus eschews both modes, opting for standard, tried-and-true singer-songwriter soul-bearing, but with a twist -- where the Sheryl Crows and (egad) Jewels of the world use the radio-ready pop folk format to project histrionic drama, by using the lo-fi aesthetic to develop what I would call "personal space," Garbus actually creates the illusion of intimacy, thus captivatingly instilling her truisms of unrequited love with more pain and passion and allure had they been embedded in any other kind of music. The pithy "News," riding a clipped 6/4 rhythm in which something that sounds like a ping-pong ball ricocheting off a table marks every beat, is a blithe put-down with jazz-styled inflections: "I get pregnant from men and birds that sing much prettier than you/I don't need booze to get it up in the morning." Both the faux-lullaby "Little Tiger" and the lilting-then-disquieting "Safety" use their respective settings to cast doubts on life in the suburbs. The eerie "Lions," punctuated by stabs of distorted keyboard bass later juxtaposed against quavering synth flutes, begins with a declaration of anguish ("When can you come over and then when you gotta leave?/Cause it won't take me forever to be hiding up your sleeve"), then gets stranger: she admits to starving herself ("All I had today were three Doritos") then suggests to that "goody two-shoes" she wants to punch that they hide in a box while her brother and her friends circle-jerk. And the touching "Fiya," which closed out the original cassette-only track listing, is about self-loathing, being uncomfortable in your own body ("What if my own skin makes my skin crawl/What if my own flesh is suburban sprawl"), but the fluttering ukulele line, breezily rushing by like a little girl pedaling down the sidewalk on a bicycle, feels like wind blowing through your hair, that moment in mid-air when wheels vault off the curb, and for a fleeting moment of freedom you no longer feel bound by the Earth's gravity. The memory of the lonely child comforts the adult, still alone, but the memory has the enduring power for solace.
This kind of trick is so singular it could only have worked once -- certainly, no one expects a grown woman to continue to make records in her living room banging pots and pans no matter how wonderfully it might have worked the first time. For 2011's superb w h o k i l l, recorded mostly in a traditional studio in her adopted hometown of Oakland, California, Garbus expanded tUnE-yArDs to incorporate bassist Nick Brenner, some ingeniously arranged saxophones, and more intricate drum arrangements. Despite strong reviews I'm less convinced thus far by the new Nikki Nack, which found her working with drum machines she as yet doesn't have the canniness to manipulate to dance to the beats in her head, and is much more thematically confused than the two albums that preceded it. In hindsight, earth mother or not, I'm amazed that she made an album with this much life with so little technology at her disposal even once. It still resonates as a quietly powerful, almost supernatural achievement: a bloom that goes underground, neither beautiful or magic enough to suit the unrealistic expectations of others, but ready to blossom at the end of the world.
June 6, 2014