The location is the first clue that something’s up. On her myspace page, tUnE-YaRdS lists her place of origin as “Merrillville,” which happens to be the name of a town in Indiana. It also happens to be a very special place inside the head of Merrill Garbus (real origin: Vermont). While she’s not making music with her band Sister Suvi, Merrill is crafting dancy folk jams as tUnE-YaRdS, piecing together shards of found sound, percussion, and ukulele on her debut album, Bird-Brains.
I first saw tUnE-YaRdS opening for Beirut at his Music Hall of Williamsburg show. If you’re like me, you don’t really expect much from openers – just something to kill time before getting to the good stuff. My expectations were fairly low, and when I saw a woman step onto the stage with nothing more than a ukulele, drums, and looping pedals, I figured I was in for another neo-tribalist bandwagon-jumper doing the whole “primitive” thing. But while there is a certain primitivism to the music of tUnE-YaRdS, I was unprepared for the sheer amount of soul. Over drum loops that were simple yet undeniably funky, Merrill strummed her ukulele and sang in a style that fluttered somewhere between jazz singer and possessed shaman. She was soon joined on stage by more people, including a bassist, saxophonist, and extra drummers. The additional band members infused her songs with an incredible amount of energy, filling out the low-end and pushing the rhythms to a visceral level. I was sold.
On record, tUnE-YaRdS is all Merrill. Bird-Brains was pieced together with a digital voice recorder and a laptop (using Audacity), and contains field recordings from the past two years of Merrill’s life. It’s a pretty ramshackle setup, but Bird-Brains makes no secret of its rough edges. Noise permeates the music, whether you’re hearing a field recording, the hiss of the recorder, or the crackle of distortion. tUnE-YaRdS also uses noise in less incidental ways, organizing fragments into additional rhythmic material. The lo-fi nature of the album gives it a very personal feel; listening through, it’s pretty clear that this music is located squarely in Merrillville.
Bird-Brains is currently available on vinyl via Marriage Records (www.marriagerecs.com). You can also buy the album in digital form from the Marriage Records website and iTunes. The album is only 10 bucks, but if you still can’t afford that, you can try e-mailing Merrill at email@example.com to work something out. You can also make a donation on her website (http://www.tuneyards.com) if you feel like giving some extra support. Be supportive!
Jun. 15th – Green Room – Montreal, QC
Jun. 27th – The Tempest – San Francisco, CA
Jul. 15th – Holocene – Portland, OR
Jul. 16th – The Northern – Olympia, WA
Jul. 18th – The Vera Project – Seattle, WA
Jul. 21st – Echo – Los Angeles, CA
Jul. 22nd – The Rickshaw Stop – San Francisco, CA