Wednesday, 3 March 2010

tUnE-yArDs - BiRd-BrAiNs

I was once told off by a commenter on Amazon for using the term lo-fi to describe the early work of Snow Patrol. The production of their first albums had been first-rate I was corrected. Well, these distinctions are important, apparently. I trust there will be no disagreement when I use lo-fi to describe the début release from New England musician Merrill Garbus. Using a digital recorder and shareware mixing software on her laptop to mix the results, the album has a DIY aesthetic, with voice clips of children talking, playing and even coughing to provide accompaniment,and a creative streak as wide as the Atlantic Ocean over which it has travelled. When the album was finally mastered at Abbey Road Studios the engineer is reputed to have said ‘You can't do this’.

Well thank god she did. Don't be fooled into thinking that lo-fi means low content or low yield. Let's begin with Garbus' voice. From soft lullaby to frantic yodel, nobody could accuse her of lacking range. There are cracks and moments where another producer might have ironed out the creases but the album is all the more interesting for going with them. Singing isn't about hitting the right notes perfectly all the time, it's about communicating, and Garbus' voice is loaded with feeling. Often this is done by starting soft and sweet and becoming louder and more insistent as the track develops, as shown on two of the album's early tracks. The insistent chorus of Sunlight does this to great effect as the repetition of 'I could be the sunlight in your eyes/Couldn't I?/Couldn't I?' grows and the hurt behind the song becomes clear. Lions begins sweet enough with her trademark ukelele but the power of her voice makes the childish sounding chorus fill with menace as the track develops. The contrast between sound and lyrical content is exploited to the full on News which with its harmonised voices and strumming uke sounds like the Andrews Sisters performing in Hawaii, even whilst she sings 'I've got news for you baby/I'm not going to stick around here anymore/If you treat me badly'.

Fiya, which you can listen to on the video link below, is the track that brought tUnE-yArDs to my attention (via the very wonderful John Self) and it contains one of those rare moments, when she sings 'You are always on my mind', where the slight delay on singing a note at the end makes the hairs on the back of your neck rise. Also impressive is the varied sounds created with limited instruments. Hatari begins with something like yodelled throat-singing before an Afro/Arabic sounding guitar line drives the track along. Jamaican has a sinister uke melody and those percussive coughs I mentioned earlier, as well as something that sounds like a vacuum or drill, whilst Garbus' vocals sound almost possessed. Perhaps the most impressive in terms of layers added is Little Tiger which has something industrial about its percussion, whilst Garbus sings as though it were a lullaby. Slowly, vocal samples stab through to upset the feel and rhythm and the song grows into something more complex. It's an impressive technical achievement, but one which more importantly creates a track with an amazing atmosphere; both beautiful, unsettling and deeply personal. As she sings (presumably to her own son) 'Don't depend on me kiddo/Bread made of blood comes from a blood red dough/The inoffensive are the ones you can hear/Playing on the radio/Don't ask me how I'll make ends meet, /I don't know' you can only hope that she ahives some of the success that is her due. By sticking to her guns and making the record she wanted to make she has created something that feels original and genuine, two words that may be the most important things when it comes to making music.


Max Cairnduff 6 October 2010 at 12:22  

It's a tremendous album. My only issue with it is that I find the dialogue between her and the kid just terrible.

Is it cool? Fresshhh.

Oh dear. I appreciate it's real, but that doesn't make it good. Plus I wonder how real it is in that she knows it's being recorded and the child plainly has no idea what she's talking about.

Other than that it doesn't really put a foot wrong.

William Rycroft 7 October 2010 at 09:43  

"Plus I wonder how real it is in that she knows it's being recorded and the child plainly has no idea what she's talking about."

Yes, we've all seen a wedding video or even just a photograph that shows how we change our behaviour when we know it's being recorded. What made me laugh is that the kid thinks he's being asked what they're called when she's saying 'they're cool', that's why he keeps saying 'blueberries'. It's a great album, almost certain to be my pick of the year, ironically because 'it's fresssh.'

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