On a recent Monday evening at the Chapel, a gabled music venue built last year in San Francisco’s Mission District, a crowd gathered beneath the venue’s bejeweled chandeliers and curved stacks of speakers to hear the Oakland folk-indie act tUnE-yArDs. It was the band’s first stage appearance in over a year and a half, as well as the debut performance of their highly anticipated third album, Nikki Nack, and the excitement was evident. Cheers rose and fell and hands stretched out and waved as the house music blared above. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, and the audience began shuffling under lights switching vigorously between green and blue and red, but nobody left. If the band was intentionally prolonging their entrance, then the crowd felt confident they were worth the wait.
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Despite their typographically challenging name, tUnE-yArDs have turned into a formidable and consistently exciting presence on the independent music scene. Merrill Garbus began the project in 2009 as a solo venture when she self-released her first album, BiRd-BrAiNs (stylistic playfulness is a trademark) as a cassette tape, which the independent music label 4AD later put out as a limited edition LP. Consisting nearly exclusively of looped and layered vocals recorded on a dictation machine, Garbus’s record drew immediate acclaim, both for its stark originality (there was no bass because, as she succinctly put it, she “literally didn’t own one”) and her powerful, elastic voice. In 2011, Garbus released her second album, w h o k i l l. It was a much more fleshed out affair that continued to build upon the expansive range of her voice, while adding more sounds—Garbus got her bass, as well as a ukulele—to the mix. The result was a record populated by asynchronous, free-floating beats with influences as far flung as rock and R&B to Gypsy rhythms and modulated jazz, all of it anchored by Garbus’s sonorously complex (and often political) lyrics. The Village Voice ranked it at the top of its influential Pazz and Jop critic’s poll that year.
For her latest album, Garbus took a trip to Haiti, where she wrote about trying to situate herself in a “non-musical western tradition.” The fruits of this labor were evident on Monday night when Garbus and the rest of her colorful bandmates finally took to the stage. Wearing a tight dress stitched together from lengths of turquoise fabric and red latex, complete with crinkled gold lamé sleeves, Garbus was flanked by her usual bassist, Nate Brenner, along with a dedicated drummer and two additional backup singers who stood and danced dutifully in the rear. A drumstick in each hand and a keyboard to her side, Garbus began beating on her toms while she sang tentatively into her mic. The room was receptive, and soon her entire band had erupted into a polyrhythmic cacophony of syncopated beats that somehow managed to remain elusively melodic, even while it twisted and turned in unpredictable ways.
At times, the performance resembled the most well-rehearsed and inventive drum circle ever put on, which speaks to how well Garbus has melded her Haitian influences with her own sound. No guitar or piano (save for a sparsely used synthesizer) was present. Instead, each song would begin with a simple beat or note sung into a mic. Garbus would then loop and layer and build upon this until her band was assaulting the audience with an infectious wall of screamed vocals and energetic thumps that could be compared to little else in contemporary music. All of this was even more amazing since, in spite of the complex starts and stops and lurid rhythms snaking through each song, they relied on the simple construction of a bass and drums. And, as in her previous efforts, Garbus’s own voice—sounding sometimes soulful, sometimes caustic and bright—brought together each element into a cohesive and organic whole.
Talking about tUnE-yArDs’ music can carry the risk of precisely describing each individual part without ever doing duty to their result. Such is the fate of originality, one could argue, especially with an art that borrows as cleverly from multifarious, distant elements as tUnE-yArDs does. In his review of their second album, New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones resorted to describing it as “music that comes from a country whose name you struggle to remember.” However, if there is one quality worth isolating above all else, it is the enduring energy with which tUnE-yArDs’ music is written, composed, and performed. Despite their occasional abrasiveness, Garbus and her band are exuberant on stage. Watching them dance in place, pound and thrash away at their instruments, and explore the boundaries of melodic taste, it is impossible to look away. Standing at the front, Garbus would sometimes look out at her audience and widen her eyes, as if possessed, and then let out a small laugh.
Surprisingly, when engaging the audience between songs, Garbus’s voice would switch to a shy, almost reticent tone. Wary of playing so much new and unfamiliar material all at once, she thanked the crowd for being willing to come out and hear it, before launching into a series of more recognizable tunes. The nearly anthemic chords of w h o k i l l’s “Powa” bled into the newer, though previously released effervescence of “Water Fountain,” then back again into older material with “Gangsta,” a caustic, powerful commentary on urban violence. Simulated sirens rang through the room then faded out as the lights went dark. When they were turned back on, the entire band was lined up into a single row, hooting into a mic. Garbus pressed some buttons and began looping the sound back, creating the opening a cappella notes of “Bizness,” another track from her second album. The whole room started singing the chorus along with her: “Don’t take my life away / don’t take my life away.” The words sounded enlivened by the past hour of new music. Perhaps everyone knew that in other rooms, in other places, everyone else would soon be singing joyfully along, too.
The tUnE-yArDs will play in San Francisco again at the Fillmore on Friday, June 6th. More tour dates are available at tune-yards.com.