We’ve been fans of tUnE-yArDs since their debut came out in 2009. We wrote a glowing review of BiRd-BrAiNs, put it into a listening post, and we (and leader Merrill Garbus) don’t think there was another tUnE-yArDs window display until we made it so. We had a hard time keeping BiRd-BrAiNs in stock for a couple of reasons, but not because it was flying off the shelves: the disc was originally a limited edition after tUnE-yArDs signed to 4AD, but reception to it was initially muted.
That was, until a couple of things happened. tUnE-yArDs hooked up with Dirty Projectors on a leg of their Bitte Orca tour, wowing crowds with their big sound and Garbus’ giant voice. Then, when Zach Galifianakis tweeted his love for the band, linking a video of their Soundscapes in-store appearance, things started to go a bit crazy online and, yes, here in the shop too. Now approaching 90,000 views, the performance of lead-off single "Bizness" has done its little part in helping to help garner w h o k i l l enough ink and sales to place it in the running for one of the top indie discs of the year.
This time around, Garbus has chosen to use more than her handheld recording device to produce her tunes. She still uses found sounds and drum loops, and plucks her beloved baritone uke on occasion, but her sound is now bolstered by the addition of bassist Nate Brenner, lots of blaring sax, and a much beefier sound. Normally a switch from lo-fi to bigger production can have an alienating effect on an existing fanbase, but for tUnE-yArDs it makes perfect sense. Much the same way that Beck needed to put out Odelay after Mellow Gold, the sounds reverberating in Garbus’ head clearly needed the treatment they have received here.
On "Bizness", for example, Garbus has given us one of the fiercest vocal performances of our time with its bombastic chorus and ping-pong weave of ooh’s, ka-ka’s, and ta-ta’s clearly influenced by the Projectors' "Remade Horizon". It’s a triumph that would not have been as great under more DIY production values. Garbus is a natural experimenter in the production chair (she gets a credit for the latest Thao & Mirah album); you can see her pulling a Prince-ly studio hermit act, poring over every tiny detail to ensure maximum effect. Indeed, "Powa" cribs nicely from the Purple One in the falsetto yelp department in delightful homage.
The centre of all the interest in tUnE-yArDs is Garbus’ audacious singing voice. It’s pretty at times, but never afraid of taking massive risks and even sounding ugly when necessary. She’s the indie-rock Missy Elliot ("Killa" and "You Yes You"), both for pure quirk value and for taking an utterly unique and stylized approach and serving it up for a potentially much larger audience. Whatever form her mass appeal takes (yet another Facebook friend posted the wildly popular "Bizness" video while I was writing this), at least her discs and tickets sell much faster here in the shop than they used to!