Merrill Garbus, the solo artist behind the tUnE-yArDs moniker, tells us on her MySpace page how “all these songs were recorded through a Sony digital voice recorder and tracked in Audacity. They are created from sounds from my life over the past two years”. The resulting album, initially self-released and now re-released by 4AD, is every bit as intimate as that solo creation might lead you to expect. What’s more of a surprise is the range and depth of scope achieved.
This is far, far removed from the kind of wishy-washy simple singer-songwritery fare that solo acts are sometimes too prone to produce. Garbus is aided by a remarkable voice, which ranges from intimate and warm to quite astonishingly powerful (see the single Hatari in particular), and capable of expressing a gamut of emotion from love and tenderness to anger and ire. That many of these songs convey an impression of a woman who is perhaps troubled, or at least unsettled, is thanks in part to this expressiveness. Lyrics like “When I scream it’s like I’m in the middle of the fight” (Lions) or the wonderful line “What if my own skin makes my skin crawl?” (Fiya) also contribute.
The album is strongly, almost fiercely female and maternal. Much use is made of recordings of children’s voices (For You, Jamaican), or sound effects: Fiya, for example, takes a child’s cough and loops it to form the basis of that track’s percussion. References to pregnancy (as in “I’ve got news for you honey / I get pregnant with birds who sing prettier than you” from sweetly-sung kiss-off track News) and nursery-rhyme imagery – Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee (also in News); “Jumping Jack, Jumping Jack, tell me why you are so wack” (Jumping Jack) – also abound. This rarely sounds as twee as it might seem on paper however, thanks once again to the power of the voice and delivery, and the general unsettling strangeness of the overall effect.
Quirks, oddities and unusual devices abound. The album opens with what sounds like some music being played backwards, on first track For You; a single exclamatory “oh” is looped again and again to produce a rich strong tapestry of noise (Sunlight); bottles are bashed for percussion (News). The impression is very much that of a musician using any tool or object to hand to feed into the creative process. Mostly, impressively, it pays off.
Many tracks have an African feel, from the lilting afrobeat-style guitar in Safety to the powerful, tribal, percussive nature of Sunlight and the astonishing Hatari, probably the most attention-grabbing piece on the album. Other highlights include the enjoyably coherent Sunlight, the singalong Jumping Jack, with its combination of synth and glockenspiel, the strong tune of Little Tiger, and the intimate, soulsearching Fiya.
Garbus can often disturb and surprise – and it is hard to escape the sense in which this is a very real, personal and sometimes stark portrayal of aspects of her life – which doesn’t make for an album that is an easy, straightforward or relaxing listen. If you relish a challenge, and like music to brace you as much as entertain you, then this should fit the bill. Like no-one else very much, but very much herself, it is one woman’s raw, open and compelling testament.