Whilst the quirky case mix of their nomenclature seems designed to irritate music journalists the world over, the music created by Merrill Garbus’ ensemble is something so wondrous that it’s easy to forgive her the indulgence. In its recorded form, her sound is a peculiar mix of raw energy and distortion with meticulous arrangements and terrifying rhythmic intricacy.
It is a hugely distinctive hybrid sound that surely must pose substantial challenges in a live environment. Just taking a glance at Garbus’ complex array of pedals, mixers and samplers on the stage floor is enough to induce a headache. They are all clearly labelled as to precisely what they control but Garbus could still be forgiven for getting them all muddled. Essentially, the tUnE-yArDs live experience is a real time reconstruction of her unusual, vibrant songs. It is fraught with risk but Garbus makes the whole thing appear carefree, easy and, perhaps most importantly, fun.
With bright yellow flashes across their clothing and face paint galore, tUnE-yArDs appear like low budget superheroes. Garbus covers her shoulders with multicoloured feathers. Right from the outset, there is a tremendous sense of anticipation and excitement in the sold out Scala crowd. Garbus’ effervescence is clearly infectious. The audience is a dancing, swaying mass of unrestrained energy and enthusiasm.
There is definitely a recurring formula to Garbus’ songs but it is undoubtedly a winning one. With a careful balance of radical, challenging ideas and the immediacy, urgency and memorability of pop, she is bringing complex, arresting music to a wide audience. The tunes often begin with her either laying down irresistibly groovy, polyrhythmic drum patterns, or with a similar approach to her looped vocals. The emphasis on rhythm is visceral and exciting.
On the surface, the band is austere and minimalist comprised of just Garbus, Nate Brenner (on bass, beer bottle percussion and occasional synth) and two saxophonists Kasey Knudsen and Matt Nelson (on alto and tenor respectively). However, Garbus also has an expansive, wide-ranging musical vision. The use of live looping allows Garbus to multi-task vigorously, plucking out lines or chords on her ukulele with a dexterity and technique rarely seen on that particular instrument. The saxophonists expand the harmony, sometimes with attacking dissonances. Brenner’s restrained but reliably groovy bass lines provide rock solid support. At times, everyone doubles on percussion, creating a joyous, celebratory mood.
What maintains interest long after Garbus’ winning formula has become apparent is the extraordinary versatility and power of her voice. On Gangsta, she uses it to create an unnerving, siren effect. Throughout, her vocal phrasing is dazzling, dealing with difficult rhythms with consummate ease and squeezing in her fast flowing lines into the smallest of spaces. Her melodies often move through strange intervals, as on Bizness or the disorientating quasi-yodelling of opener Hatari. Sometimes there’s a near-tenderness that is striking, as on Powa. Throughout her range of expression is staggering.
Gigs of this level of quality, with restless energy and strong communication between the band members further elevate Garbus’ already exhalted status. It’s too early to start marking her out as an iconic artist – she clearly has much more to do. Certainly few have made such idiosyncratic and uncompromising music whilst courting substantial, loyal audiences.