New album from tune-yards: a flea in the ear

Somewhere between social commentary and nursery rhyme, the U.S. indie band releases the album "I can feel you creep into my private life."

Tune-Yards 2014 at Austin City Limits in Austin, Texas Photo: dpa

What a nasty evil earworm! You catch yourself humming this attention-grabbing musical routine to yourself, "I am exceptional/I am an exception/I am the exception/That’s for me, that’s also for me/I am a contradiction/I’m fascinating/Not enough, too much/Tell me I’m special." That ironic U.S. exceptionalism song is not something you really want on your tongue. They haunt your head, though, these lines from "Now as Then," a song from the new Tune Yards album. It’s the fourth work overall since "Bird-Brains," the idea-laden, eclectic world music 2.0-meets-indie pop debut from U.S. artist Merrill Garbus.

Her slyly catchy tune sounds like a satirical culmination and stands out on an album that otherwise seems more introspective. Merrill Garbus is Tune-Yards (even if bassist Nate Brenner, a longtime musical companion, is now officially part of the project). And the Californian is amused, if slightly embarrassed, when I tell her my interpretation that her song is about a lively cacophony of modern narcissism. Unfortunately, it’s not satire at all, Garbus explains. She likes this interpretation all the better. "Actually, the song is about me. All my life I’ve been told that I’m something special and that I have to make something of it. In that sense, it’s less social criticism and more being disgusted by my privileged status."

Reflecting on her own position has always been a concern for 38-year-old Garbus. But on her new, appropriately titled album "I can feel you creep into my private life," she takes a more pointed, less open-minded approach than on some of her earlier compositions. This reflects a general trend that characterized the past pop year: the politicization of the private sphere. One thinks, for example, of the radical self-questioning of R&B talent Kelela and U.S. rapper Kendrick Lamar, who put his attitudes to the test with the album "DAMN." while he had still drawn a social panorama with the predecessor "To Pimp a Butterfly. Against the backdrop of a politically poisoned climate, many U.S. artists in particular are dealing with the question of the extent to which the madness out there has to do with oneself. At least Garbus does it in such an abstract way: Somewhere between social commentary and nursery rhyme, she develops music in which there is room for – as mentioned above – potentially productive misunderstandings.

Inculcating mantras

Garbus once explained in an interview that song lyrics meant so little to her that she was interested first in rhythms, then in melodies, and only last of all in lyrics. In that respect, it’s amazing how well she knows how to inculcate one with compelling, in that case rather uncomfortable, mantras. "In fact, my view of it has changed. I used to find song lyrics often too banal. That has changed thoroughly, largely due to hip-hop, which I listened to extensively. Through it, I understood how musical words can be and that it’s fun to play with them. Honestly, language has become the main reason I’ll be composing songs for the rest of my life." No wonder, then, that questions about song lyrics lead to all sorts of detours for Garbus.

Although it’s still early in the day in Oakland, a Bay Area town near San Francisco where Garbus lives, the artist is in a chatty mood: talking, for instance, about how "social justice warrior" has become the negative fighting term of the alt-right movement. "Cool, that’s what you want to be," Garbus counters. Or talks about how enlightening reading Yuval Noah Harris’ "A Brief History of Mankind" was for her. The catchy song "Now as Then" also contains the impressive line: "I don’t wanna be a woman / If it means not being a human. Garbus confesses, "Pretty blatant statement, after all, I’ve spent my life so far exploring for myself what it means to be female. I was at a women’s college, studying body politics. And that is the conclusion. Whereby ‘human’ is also a placeholder term, because it’s becoming more and more apparent that ‘human’ behaviors don’t necessarily do any good."

With all this meaningfulness, the sound of the new Tune Yards album should not be forgotten at all. That’s because it brings Garbus back closer to the lofi aesthetic of her debut, which she recorded on a Dictaphone at the time. Since then, she had always refined her mixture of folk, Afro-beat, R&B and pop. For her last album, "Nikki Nack," she had even consulted Molly-Ann Leikin’s self-help book, "How To Write A Hit Single."

Merrill Garbus, Tune-Yards

"From hip-hop, I learned how musical words can be"

Sonic stumbling blocks

"I can feel you creep into my private life", on the other hand, also comes across as more rumbling and somewhat more inaccessible than its poppier predecessor. Garbus is pleased with this assessment: "On the last album, it was really about proving that we can do classic pop. Now we’re more interested in experimenting. It brings more joy to work on an uneven sonic texture than to polish the songs too smoothly." And indeed, the sonic stumbles are set in such a way that the music comes across as less engaging, despite Garbus’ always remarkable, impressively spacious voice. The feel is more brittle, somewhat lacking the playful magic of earlier works as a result.

Juggling ideas and looking inward don’t necessarily go together. What Tune-Yards captures on album, however, is a secondary experience to the great live concerts anyway, where Garbus’ stage presence blows the audience away again and again. She sees it similarly, even if she coquettishly counters that this probably means, in the final analysis, that "we have to make better albums." But since playing live is a spiritual experience for her, she says she’s not surprised that the audience feels the same way. Both of her parents are folkies. Making music came naturally to Garbus from a young age, and she later studied theater. "In that respect, I’ve always performed. Working in the studio, on the other hand, is relatively unfamiliar to me."

Tune-Yards: "I can feel you creep into my private life". (4 AD/Beggars/Indigo); live: 3/24, Gebaude 9, Cologne, 3/27, Festsaal Kreuzberg, Berlin, 3/28, Uebel & Gefahrlich, Hamburg

What emerges from their studio experiments is also enormously worth listening to this time. Gradually the overload thins out and the pop appeal comes through. However, the concerts will probably be even better this time. Therefore: definitely go there!

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