There is a fine line between oddball eccentrics and the plain annoying. Those that get it wrong are either lampooned for years or forgotten about instantly. Those that get it right earn a special place in cult record collections and favourable mentions in trendier-than-thou locations and become cyclical, periodically getting rediscovered and pawed over afresh. This is true of the mythical Daniel Johnston and true of Iceland's Mugison and his 2004 album Mugimama, Is This Monkey Music? And it probably ought to be true of one of 2009's most original albums Jewellery by Micachu & The Shapes.
When Micachu (née Mica Levi) wasn't writing for the London Philharmonic and performing at the Royal Festival Hall she was producing Jewellery, a real kitchen sink of an album that employs the vacuum cleaner, clapping beats and general squeaks `n' pops. Her madcap lo-fi caused a small ripple that may yet reach shore, the same shore that tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus now inhabits. BiRd-BrAiNs equally treads the line and happily, for the most part, falls on the right side of it.
Her approach is similarly lo-fi, unsurprising for an entirely self-produced record. What is surprising is the real presence of melody that Garbus has woven into an album on which haphazard indulgence would perhaps have been more expected. The stark drum machine patterns jitter and her digitally affected vocal warms. BiRd-BrAiNs approaches the amiable peculiarities and harmonies of Dirty Projectors, particularly on the discordant yet rhythmic "Hatari", but concedes as ever on production values.
Spoken samples chatter on varied themes such as blueberries, guitars chime and slow-time, wonky, fuzzy beats build the slightest of glitchtronica overtones. It may all seem a little alien to begin with but makes more and more sense with exposure. In particular, the limping rhythms in "Lions" become hugely appealing with time. The pulsing drums and driving lo-fi guitar of "Jamaican" seem spot on for showcasing Garbus's manic whisper.
tUnE-yArDs may well be keen on stylising but behind the posturing lies real substance. Be it all carefully composed or blissful accident, BiRd-BrAiNs is really rather intelligent.
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Blew my head off when I first heard it. The album starts and you think, where the hell is this going? Then the bass kicks in and 'Sunlight' takes off. Yes, O Yes! All of it the work of one Merrill Garbus, the homemade recording is pretty rough (apparently it was all recorded on a dictation machine!), full of playful big booming beats and I could start listing all the wonderful tracks but that would be pretty much every track on it. The outstandingly outstanding moments? Pretty much every track on it. Get it now and then get the follow up Whokill. Now!
It's a great thing when you come across music that excites you on so many levels. This is one of the most original, enticing and enjoyable albums that I've heard for a while. There are many tracks that stand out on first listen, and plenty more that grow on you. A beautiful record.
I was once told off by a commenter on Amazon for using the term lo-fi to describe the early work of Snow Patrol. The production of their first albums had been first-rate I was corrected. Well, these distinctions are important, apparently. I trust there will be no disagreement when I use lo-fi to describe the début release from New England musician Merrill Garbus. Using a digital recorder and shareware mixing software on her laptop to mix the results, the album has a DIY aesthetic, with voice clips of children talking, playing and even coughing to provide accompaniment,and a creative streak as wide as the Atlantic Ocean over which it has travelled. When the album was finally mastered at Abbey Road Studios the engineer is reputed to have said `You can't do this'.
Well thank god she did. Don't be fooled into thinking that lo-fi means low content or low yield. Let's begin with Garbus' voice. From soft lullaby to frantic yodel, nobody could accuse her of lacking range. There are cracks and moments where another producer might have ironed out the creases but the album is all the more interesting for going with them. Singing isn't about hitting the right notes perfectly all the time, it's about communicating, and Garbus' voice is loaded with feeling. Often this is done by starting soft and sweet and becoming louder and more insistent as the track develops, as shown on two of the album's early tracks. The insistent chorus of Sunlight does this to great effect as the repetition of 'I could be the sunlight in your eyes/Couldn't I?/Couldn't I?' grows and the hurt behind the song becomes clear. Lions begins sweet enough with her trademark ukelele but the power of her voice makes the childish sounding chorus fill with menace as the track develops. The contrast between sound and lyrical content is exploited to the full on News which with its harmonised voices and strumming uke sounds like the Andrews Sisters performing in Hawaii, even whilst she sings 'I've got news for you baby/I'm not going to stick around here anymore/If you treat me badly'.
Fiya is the track that brought tUnE-yArDs to my attention and it contains one of those rare moments, when she sings 'You are always on my mind', where the slight delay on singing a note at the end makes the hairs on the back of your neck rise. Also impressive is the varied sounds created with limited instruments. Hatari begins with something like yodelled throat-singing before an Afro/Arabic sounding guitar line drives the track along. Jamaican has a sinister uke melody and those percussive coughs I mentioned earlier, as well as something that sounds like a vacuum or drill, whilst Garbus' vocals sound almost possessed. Perhaps the most impressive in terms of layers added is Little Tiger which has something industrial about its percussion, whilst Garbus sings as though it were a lullaby. Slowly, vocal samples stab through to upset the feel and rhythm and the song grows into something more complex. It's an impressive technical achievement, but one which more importantly creates a track with an amazing atmosphere; both beautiful, unsettling and deeply personal. As she sings (presumably to her own son) 'Don't depend on me kiddo/Bread made of blood comes from a blood red dough/The inoffensive are the ones you can hear/Playing on the radio/Don't ask me how I'll make ends meet, /I don't know' you can only hope that she ahives some of the success that is her due. By sticking to her guns and making the record she wanted to make she has created something that feels original and genuine, two words that may be the most important things when it comes to making music.
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I got the Sister Suvi Album Now I Am Champion as part of a bundle of downloads and started listening to it rather obsessively. Sister Suvi include Merrill Garbus (female) so I decided to try out the tUnE-yArDs, which is pretty much all Merrill.
First impressions were not entirely favourable, this is probably not music that will instantly grip most listeners, initially it borders on the dissonant and unlistenable. However with subsequent listens it gets more and more appealing, though if you have no tolerance for dissonance or experimentation then this is not for you. This is also very lo-fi, a voice, some tape effects and not terribly much else.
My favourite track is Sunlight, with the irresistible chorus of "I could be the sunlight in your eye".
The music has shades of African choirs, yelping, howling and some very melodic episodes buried in there. It it worth persevering because if you like this, then you will like it a lot, it really is very good. Finally I would class this as music, rather than songs. Like a classical piece, it takes a good few listens to really get into any particular track, but it repays the effort.