tUnE-YaRdS is the musical project which started in the late 2000s when a friend gave Merrill Garbus a hand held tape recorder. The one-time puppeteer and ex-theatre worker began experimenting with the recorder, looping her voice not only to convey her powerful lyrics, but to create harmonies and rhythms. The result was the release of one of the most compelling indie releases of 2009.
This past April, Merrill released her sophomore album, this time choosing to step into the studio to record W H O K I L L . The fans and the media have received the new hi-fi recording gloriously, which brings us to the sweaty back room of The Horseshoe Tavern, where tUnE-YaRdS have sold out the house.
The energetic duo Buke and Gass (purveyors of uncommon stringed instruments and a big sound) have just left the stage, and eager club goers try their best to move in closer to the stage. As the show starts, it becomes clear right from the get go that Merrill can engage a live audience. As she begins to feed her exhuberant hoots and haunting howls in and out of her effects pedals, a tension builds in the audience to join in with the calls of the fantastic one woman choir.
As well as providing the vocals, which are remiscient of art pop singer Bjork, Garbus also plays along on the drums, and the ukulele. On the ukulele, Garbus refuses to concede to the notion that the uke is purely a kitsch instrument- playing the four-string sometimes like a guitar, sometimes using her fists to rap out rhythms on it’s body. She is soon joined on stage by her bassist Nate Brenner, and a section of sax players which came into the fold with the making of the recent album.
There’s a very primal appeal to the show that tUnE-YaRdS put on, a show that is largely based in percussion. The band plays through a body of works which draws heavily from the new album- a fresh mix of sounds from R&B, hip hop, and African folk music. If there is ever any doubt of Garbus’ authenticity, one only needs to look at her audience who take any chance to participate by either singing or clapping along with the unconventional songstress.
Crowd favourites include socially slanted singles from W H O K I L L, “Gangsta” and “Bizness” as well as old favourites like “Fiya”. At the end of the set the rambunctious crowd cries out for more, even going to so far to (affectionately?) boo when they don’t get a second encore. Overall, it was neat experience to be able to see inside the orchestrations of what will likely be one of the more important albums of the year. Watching Merrill create and respond to her own vocal loops, and then seeing the audience bounce the positive energy back made the Horseshoe Tavern an exciting place to be this past Thursday night.
© Natascha Malta, Music Vice