My first impression of Merrill Garbus, the brains (or bird-brains if you’ll excuse the obvious joke) of Tune-Yards, is that of a Daniel Johnston-type: ultra creative with a lack of shiny production or, at times, easy melodies, but with a sharp ear for construction. The spots where her music gets most aggravating is usually where it’s most impressive, and where it seems like she’s laid out every shrill note exactly where she wants it. These lines between chaos and quality, audible doodling and legitimate art, however, are rarely blunt.
Still, this isn’t just a self-gratifying vanity album filled with harsh avant-garde nonsense. It bookends a more conventional sound, a ukulele and Garbus’s deep murmur, with hints of what’s to come in sampled yelps, distortion and moderate dissonant accompaniment. The most straight-forward of these is the third track, “Lions”, which feels like a dark lullaby on a rainy night. We can hear the rich, R&B strains in Garbus’s vocals, and the fleeting folk influences before the end of the song when the chorus becomes disjointed with the concomitant ukulele and the whole track gently fades out.
The rest of the album is peppered with touches of Afro-pop and world sounds, R&B and general experimentation. Songs like “Hatari” and “Jamaican” offer little in the way of commonplace song ornaments, often breaking down the slim threads of musicality with M.I.A.-like outbursts and chants as well as warped sound effects and lo-fi electronic buzzing. It’s fascinating for a while, as each song feels like it was stitched together like a quilt, but the lack of a congruity throughout the album is tiring.
It’s an unfortunate stalemate for those who appreciate good artistry but don’t have an ear for such a cacophonous sound. I could easily see this album being one of the top records of the year that you never wanted to hear again; it almost has to be taken in small doses, dissected and studied like a science experiment, and slowly adopted into one’s listening oeuvre.
The real difference with the afore-mentioned Johnston sound and Tune-Yards is context. Johnston did what he did during a time when do-it-yourself music was impractical and rare, and the only viral exposure came through local shows, word of mouth and (if you were lucky) media outlets like MTV. His brand of offbeat brilliance brought about a cult of followers, not just because it was amazing but because it was so odd. This same oddness is almost yawned at now, flip some quirky tracks in your basement and put it on your MySpace and eventually someone will hear it, no big deal. What does unite Garbus and Johnston is intimacy. It’s a trait unable to be faked that won’t diminish over time, no matter what technology becomes widely available. That’s what will inevitably bring me back to Tune-Yards.