Tune-Yards

Anna and I caught one of the best performances we’ve seen in years the other night by Tune-Yards.

My friend Andrew, who was at the show, said this afterwards: “I can’t decide whether hearing the president say ‘This is not class warfare, it’s math’ or the fact that this band could become popular makes me feel more optimistic about the possibilities of life in America.”

Merrill Garbus started receiving rapturous praise from the indie-rock press a couple of years ago. I read her adulatory New Yorker profile and was immediately skeptical — in the abstract, the idea of a white indie rocker playing African music on a ukelele is not an enticing proposition for me. But curiosity got the better of me, and when I listened to some tracks, I was immediately hooked.

Stylistically, Tune-Yards is an unlikely combination of Fela Kuti, Medúlla-era Björk, Reggie Watts and Primus. Merrill Garbus uses pedals to sample and loop her voice and drumming, and plays baritone ukelele. Sometimes she strums it like a guitar, but she also plays fingerstyle in a way that evokes thumb piano. She’s accompanied by a bassist and two tenor sax players, all of whom also play assorted percussion instruments. See the band in action:

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Here’s an actual music video:

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Why does this music excite me so much?

The most obvious pleasure is Merrill G’s tremendous talent as a singer. Underneath all the growling and shrieking, she has a legit voice, with a big range and precise pitch control when she wants it. She’s an electrifying stage presence, too, with a relaxed intensity and unfakeable confidence.

Merrill G’s writing is interesting too, though not as consistent as her performance. Her tunes are quirky, thorny and dense. They have a lot of abrupt starts and stops, and show clear signs of being assembled solo in a bedroom on Garageband. Merrill G is masterful with the rhythmic and sonic aspects of English, with a dense syllabic flow that leans toward hip-hop. (She also sings a bit in Swahili.) Her melodies are chants or simple pentatonics, but still manage to show a lot of personal idiosyncrasy, like her penchant for starting and ending on scale degree two.

It’s always politically tricky when white musicians imitate black music. There’s nothing more embarrassing than a bad white rapper, for example. White musicians have a very mixed track record with African sounds. I’m totally in favor of David Byrne and Paul Simon, but Vampire Weekend is painful. Merrill G has so far been a lot closer to David Byrne. Rather than imitating the surface sounds of African music, she’s internalized it and used it to express the truth of her inner self. Some of the technique might be borrowed from Africa, but the content is all about modern America, and it feels truthful and authentic coming from her.

Live looping

The most significant aspect of Tune-Yards’ music is Merrill G’s use of live looping. Anyone who wants to make groove-oriented music in the present moment faces a dilemma. Live drummers tend to fall back into tiresome rock cliches, which get lamer with every passing year. On the other hand, sampled and programmed beats aren’t conducive to dynamic live performances. It’s hard to get that feeling of excitement from watching someone press the space bar on a laptop and then just… stand there.

Live looping gives Tune-Yards the best of both worlds. Merrill G records her drum patterns into the loop pedal right in front of you, one instrument at a time: floor tom, rim shots, snare, cymbals. She couldn’t use rock cliches if she wanted to, since she plays standing up and doesn’t use a kick drum. Because she doesn’t always nail her patterns exactly, her loops have an appealing human quality. And she mixes it up, so some tunes use only looped drums, some use both looped and live drums, and some are played entirely live.

Merrill G’s looped vocals are even fresher-sounding than the drums. Sometimes she uses them to do conventional backing vocals with herself. Sometimes the vocals act as a rhythmic element. Sometimes they build into hair-raising noise collage. Most songs use some combination of the above. By stopping and starting the loops in unexpected places, the tunes are spiced with attention-grabbing silences, a much better way to snap the room into focus than boring fills and crescendos.

If you couldn’t tell from reading this blog, I’m not too wild about rock and roll these days. I enjoy the classics, but I don’t think there’s much juice left in the orange anymore. I like Tune-Yards because they rock, incredibly hard, without falling back on tired rock tropes. I’d like to hear more music like that.

Some wishes

One of the high points of the show was when Merrill G had us all sing a long sustained note, the fifth of the key, through a section of one song. There’s room for way more audience participation than that in the Tune-Yards experience. I’d love to see Merrill sample the crowd clapping a simple pattern, or chanting, and then build on top. Audience participation is one of the main things missing from most concerts, and when you do it right, it’s magical. It’s one of the great sicknesses of our society that we leave music-making to specialists, while most people just passively observe. Tune-Yards could create some truly ecstatic group music-making, without having to get all kumbaya about it.

I also wouldn’t mind hearing Tune-Yards slip a cover or two into the mix. Original material is all well and good, but it would have been really satisfying to hear the set close with a radical take on a classic eighties pop tune. Anna suggested “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper, which I think would be perfect — imagine Merrill G shrieking the lyrics over a raucous drum loop. Or how about some Michael Jackson? “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” would fit their style like a glove. Pop covers would be another way to bring in some more audience participation, since Merrill G’s knotty original stuff doesn’t facilitate much singing along.

My own preferred form of audience participation is the remix, I made a mashup of Tune-Yards’ “Bizness” with “Nobody Beats The Biz” by Biz Markie, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” by Kanye West and Jay-Z, “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” by Billie Holiday, “Taking Care Of Business” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive and “Strictly Business” by EPMD. If you’d like to hear it, get in touch.

Update: really good article discusses Merrill Garbus’ complex gender politics. Recommended.

One thought on “Tune-Yards

  1. Ethan, thanks for noting and recommending my piece on Merrill Garbus. I return the compliment. Love the megamix, too!

    Chris Pierson/Tragic Farce

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