Music Reviews
11:43 am
Mon May 5, 2014

tUnE-yArDs: Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing

tUnE-yArDs is Merrill Garbus. She writes the songs, which frequently consist of musical riffs broken into pieces and shards, glued together with an organizing rhythm. She provides most of the multi-layered vocals and much of the percussion, as well as various keyboards, ukulele and other instruments and objects. Working with bassist Nate Brenner and occasionally a few other singers and instrumentalists, Garbus gives electrifying performances that showcase her remarkably flexible singing voice. In her ability to create music that sounds at once invitingly familiar and disorientingly new, Garbus is the real thing — an original artist.

Her stated influences are a patchwork, including everything from kids' games and TV shows to the drum rhythms she's heard in music from Kenya and Haiti, as well as every kind of American pop. I also hear the sort of strongly willful naivete that in the past has powered music by idiosyncratic artists such as Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu's David Thomas, Jonathan Richman and the children's-music genius-eccentric Jim Copp. But in Nikki Nack's "Real Thing," Garbus worries over the notion that she's just an accumulation of her influences, and she fights back wonderfully, calling out the "curse of the real thing." This song and many others are showcases for her striking vocals.

There are quiet moments on this album, such as "Look Around," which commences with Garbus' stark, lovely, soulful singing. That song builds and builds into a rich, multi-tracked, orchestral swirl that surges with confidence even as its lyric describes examples of what Garbus calls "the most brilliantly rhyming terrors." tUnE-yArDs' music plays with notions of assertiveness and weakness, power and passivity. Garbus' voice is so flexible, assuming so many roles within a single song, and her music is so artfully ramshackle, it can confuse a newcomer. Is she a kid just fiddling around with do-it-yourself technology? No. Now a thirtysomething based in Oakland, Calif., Garbus is an artist whose process has become more complex with each of her three albums. She took her album title Nikki Nack from the "This Old Man" nursery rhyme, but she's never childish — her songs raise the subjects of personal and political revolt, of natural and man-made disasters, of the difficult work of trying to achieve happiness.

At one point during "Hey Life," Garbus sings, "Hey, life, I love you so much I scream and shout." tUnE-yArDs' music contains some of the most thoughtful and artful screaming and shouting I've heard in a while.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. tUnE-yArDs is a music act conceived by singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Merrill Garbus that has attracted a lot of attention. The tUnE-yArDs' previous album "Who Kill" was voted the best album of 2011 in the Village Voice Critics' Poll. The new third tUnE-yArDs album is called "Nikki Nack" and rock critic Ken Tucker says it continues Garbus' adventurous experiments.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIND A NEW WAY")

tUnE-yArDs: (Singing) My dreams aren't about the future. You tried to tell me that I had a right to sing, just like a bird has to fly. And I wanted to believe him because he seemed like a really nice guy. Oh, but I trip on the truth when I walk that wire. When you wear a mask, always sound like a liar. I tried to tell him all the reasons that I had to never sing again. And he replied, you better find a new way.

(Singing) Find a new way. Find a new way.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: tUnE-yArDs is Merrill Garbus. She writes the songs, which frequently consist of musical riffs broken into pieces and shards, glued together with an organizing rhythm. She provides most of the multi-layered vocals, much of the percussion, as well as various keyboards, ukulele and other instruments and objects. Working with bassist Nate Brenner and occasionally a few other singers and instrumentalists, Garbus gives electrifying performances that showcase her remarkably flexible singing voice. In her ability to create music that sounds at once invitingly familiar and disorientingly new, Garbus is the real thing - an original artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REAL THING")

tUnE-yArDs: (Singing) Givin' up what you've got. And what you are, you're simply not Aren't you tired of this game? And all the emptiness of your fame? You can't hold tight to what you have, because there is nothing there to grab. Now life is a shadow of the but, you never did have what you thought you got.

(Singing) I'm no real thing. They say I'm the real thing. I sound like the real thing. Sing it real loud like the real thing. Makin' 'em proud like the real thing. I come from the land of slaves. Let's go Redskins Let's go Braves. You want the truth in tomes, dig this dirt and sift out the bones. They said I'm the real thing . I sound like the real thing...

TUCKER: That's "Real Thing," whose lyric grapples with what it means to be real, authentic or original. Her stated influences are a patchwork, including everything from kid's games and TV shows to the drum rhythms she's heard in music from...

...authentic or original. Her stated influences are a patchwork, including everything from kids' games and TV shows to the drum rhythms she's heard in music from Kenya and Haiti, as well as every kind of American pop. I also hear the sort of willful naïveté that in the past has powered music by idiosyncratic artists such as Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu's David Thomas, Jonathan Richman and the children's-music genius-eccentric Jim Copp.

But in "Real Thing," Merrill Garbus worries over the notion that she's just an accumulation of her influences, and she fights back wonderfully, calling out the, quote, "curse of the real thing." This song and many others are showcases for her striking vocals. There are quiet moments on this album, such as "Look Around," which commences with Garbus' stark, lovely, soulful singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK AROUND")

tUnE-yArDs: (singing) There will be always something you can lean your weight into. There will be always something you can rely on. I will be always something you can lean your weight into. I will be always something you can rely on. There will be always something you can lean your weight into. There will be always something you can rely on. I, I will be always something you can lean your weight into. I will be always something you can rely on.

Never thought I'd call you baby. But look around, look around, look around. We are the dreams that we were made of. Our friends have died waging war against their rulers. Come here, don't cry. We won't let anybody fool us.

TUCKER: That song builds and builds into a rich, multi-tracked, orchestral swirl that surges with confidence even as its lyric describes examples of what Garbus calls the most brilliantly rhyming terrors. tUnE-yArDs' music plays with notions of assertiveness and weakness, power and passivity.

Garbus' voice is so flexible, assuming so many roles within a single song, and her music is so artfully ramshackle, it can confuse a newcomer. Is she a kid just fiddling around with do-it-yourself technology? No. Now in her thirties, Garbus is an Oakland, California based artist whose process has become more complex with each of her three albums.

She took her album title "Nikki Nack" from the "This Old Man" nursery rhyme, but she's never childish - her songs raise the subjects of personal and political revolts, of natural and man-made disasters, of the difficult work of trying to achieve happiness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY LIFE")

tUnE-yArDs: (singing) One day I wake up with disgust in my head, could not forgive myself. Another moment in the bed. One day the mirror always disappoints. I pinch my skin back till I see the joints. Today I'm feeling like I live on a ledge. At any moment I just know I'm going to fall off the edge. They hang on. I promise them I will but I don't know for how long.

(singing) Wait for a minute. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Wait for a minute.

TUCKER: At one point on this album, Merrill Garbus sings, "Hey, life, I love you so much I scream and shout." tUnE-yArDs' music contains some of the most thoughtful and artful screaming and shouting I've heard in a while.

GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed "Nikki Nack," the new album from tUnE-yArDs. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Amanda Vaill's new book about the Spanish civil war. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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