2009 has proved to be a bad year for list making. This is not only because tons of shit went down this year that we don’t really want to talk about but also due to the fact that most art worthy of public attention seems to have been announced too loudly for anyone to have missed it, proving little need for documentation. 2009 is without a doubt one of the least subtle years of recent memory. What was good this year has had its praise shouted out by EVERYBODY and has been noted EVERYWHERE. What was bad (or sad) this year has likewise been shoved down our throats till we’re made sick of it. Even art that gained mixed responses this year has seemed to draw more from the left or the right than from those stuck in the middle of their feelings, with a plethora of equally bombastic responses from both lovers and haters flying at us all with hyper speed. With everyone on their loud mouthed high horses this year, I’ve found myself playing devils advocate most of the time, positive that not everything is as black and white as this year, or rather, our responses to this year have suggested. This perhaps explains a bit of my missing in action here at minorprogression; a bit of the existential blog blues at the end of a year that has had no room for those feeling indifferent or not knowing quite what to think.
The exhausting nature of this year was often due to the fact that it was not a year for new artists. Almost all of the art I found myself being introduced to during this past twelve months was the work of people already on the radar. No where was this fact more apparent than in the world of music “popular music”. With the exception of very few titles, all of the really noteworthy albums that came out this year were the works of artists who have been honing their craft for at least an album or two, many of whom are already three or more albums into their careers. Part of my feeling a bit lost in the hype explosion was the fact that many of these great albums I could see coming from many miles away. Though there were many massive achievements in music this year, it’s hard to be surprised by the fact that Animal Collective, The Dirty Projectors and Fever Ray put out some of this years best material.
These facts only amplify the already celebration worthy emergence of Tune-Yards on the music scene, a band who are without a doubt the most exciting new music makers that I’ve been turned on to lately, with force that stands up to the big boys of the year with ferocious ambition and charm to spare. Here’s a video of them playing one of my favorite songs of theirs,
Tune-Yards is a moniker for Merrill Garbus who is the sole singer and songwriter for the band. When she plays live she often employs others to help flesh out her sound but last night at “The Stone” in NYC (which seems like it’s going to be one of my new favorite places to see live music), Merrill treated the small venue’s sold out audience to a very special one woman show. After a long American and European tour opening for one of this ( and the past few) years indisputably great bands, the aforementioned Dirty Projectors, a return to a small and intimate environment must have been an exciting change of pace for Garbus, though not nearly as exciting as it was for her audience. To say that Garbus is a great performer is putting things mildly. When I say that five minutes into her live performance she had already made it clear that her debut album is the most important of its kind this year AND that it only hints at her overwhelming talent as a musician and performer, it may start to give you an idea of what’s actually going on here which is in other words, a lot.
Though Garbus played the show solo, it would be hard to determine her singularity based solely on the sounds she made. Tune-Yards sound huge, due to the layering of sounds that Garbus creates with the help of her ukulele, voice, drums and loop pedals. I will go so far as to say I’ve never heard a single person build such a diverse world of sounds with such limited means. Though the performer that comes closest to mind (at least in terms of his set up) is Andrew Bird, his live percussionist and arms length coolness are worlds away from the immediate, impassioned and sometimes theatrical performance style of Garbus.
Her influences are seemingly all over the place but a few touchstones are essential in mentioning her music. Though a great deal of African and tribal sounds make themselves present in nearly every song, she never let’s her act or sound slip into pastiche or trendyness, relying on African music’s exclamatory qualities and the driving rhythms of its backbone for her inspiration. This is joined with bits of american folk and pop stylings, r&b and old soul grooves , tin pan ally melodic ism and probably about a dozen other things. At times her sounds suggest Fela Kuti, The Dirty Projectors, Odetta, Animal Collective, Joni Mitchell, George Gershwin and Prince, sometimes all in the same song. Though she could easily have a tendency to slip into jamyness or extreme triteness with so much going on, what saves her music and is always present first and foremost is Garbus herself, whose personality and unique ear for sound always outweigh her influences and keep her music her own. Her musicality is almost unbelievable in its complexity and awareness with a voice that’s equally beautiful and powerful at the same time and tone that is always spot on…even when she’s screaming or making sounds that defy easy description.
What finally makes this music and album so important and exciting to me is the way it continually finds melodic grounding and even multiple hooks within its sonic wanderlusting and sound experimentation. In the midst of all the exciting combinations of sounds she produces and the engaging theatricality she embodies when she plays them live, it’s the fact that these are actual songs, many of which structurally your parents could even get down with, that ultimately makes all of this go down so smoothly. Every song she writes is carefully written and often surprisingly catchy and wonderfully fun to listen to.
With a plethora of bad banter-ers out there in the music world, Garbus luckily comes off as modest and genuine, nonchalantly knowing and clever when she speaks, a combination we don’t see nearly enough of in the world of the truly talented. Then she starts another song and you’re transfixed again by her instant metamorphosis. She’s instantly a ball of fire, unstoppable and awe-inspiring, a leader ready for a revolution. Your allegiance is impending.