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LIFE IN THE CITY – When the old Tune-Yards jam “Gangsta” got to the part, the “bridge,” where the rhythm falls apart and the drums throw a semi-disciplined tantrum and Merrill Garbus sings those five exasperated syllables, she paused. She met the crowd with mock defiance, with raised eyebrows if I remember right, as if asking, Do I move you? Or: Do you dare question my music’s claims to the American city? She held other moments too, the vocals that arrive like a siren, a patch of interjecting, exorcising tongues, and generally exacerbated the song’s private record of community and authenticity troubles. It was funny, because the question was settled a long time ago; these days she sings things like “I’m the real thing” and no one thinks twice.
So how far does her claim extend? Could she conceivably bring this music to a city in ruins? I have no clue, nor does it seem to matter. She claims Minneapolis; she knows her audience and her audience knows her. The local weekly attempted to suggest the diversity of Tune-Yards’ audience by listing the types of people who turn up at their Minneapolis shows, only to end up with a list of people who more or less comfortably inhabit the metro. I followed suit and didn’t pick at the songs beyond their immediate context, so that “Water Fountain” (“no water in the water fountain – no phone in the phone booth – no side to the sidewalk”) became an energetic reminder for people who have glimpsed the crumble of public spaces and know what it means but who mostly live their lives elsewhere, people who drink bottled water, own cell phones, drive cars. Bloody dollars are still legal tender. Garbus declared herself moved and blessed to find such a packed house and enthusiastic reception for her “weird ass music.” It did sound weird, at one time (I remember hearing her voice on “Bizness” and saying “no”), but as more and more people shuffle it into their listening, attunement grows and “weird” becomes a foggy memory. That’s the hope, generally. Artists must change, of course, but for the weird, visible ones, it’s almost more useful for them to stagnate and wear down resistance, person by person.
Tune-Yards have mostly moved away from the looping that defined 2011’s W H O K I L L (learned from opening act Dosh, Garbus claimed), but it still made a strong impression live and felt a part of the milieu of concertgoing in 2014. I can hardly go out anymore without seeing solo artists play mini-symphonies-unto-themselves. It’s always interesting, to observe the elegance (Julianna Barwick, Kishi Bashi, heck, even Richard Buckner, for a spectacular finale to an intimate solo set) and/or labor (the dubiously monikered but entirely inspiring Gringo Soul, who played workmanlike versions of, among other things, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” on a farm in Illinois earlier this month) with which performers track songs in the moment. It’s the most obvious thing in the world, once again made possible by technology. Most of these artists are intent on making looping a seamless live process, and as it’s one that’s prone to error (I remember some fumbles, long ago), it requires a great deal of courage in the attempt. Garbus outdoes them all by providing a window to looping as a studio process, creating her tracks before commencing the song, or letting the song hang implicit in the air, momentarily, as she broadens her palette of sounds. Both “Powa” and “Bizness” had their looped elements introduced as discrete blocks of sound, bound by silence and then layered. So, before singing a single note of “Powa,” Garbus laid down the ukulele part, and then the drumbeat. Both were too slow, but such a languid tune approaches, simultaneously, perfection and the threshold of tipping over.
Those songs were the exception. New ones favor expressive, elastic bass lines with lots of negative space (Tina Weymouth, check), played by other Tune-Yard Nate Brenner, and live, not looped, drumming that allows Garbus to be a constant active participant in her music. Oddly, the setlist bypassed “Find A New Way,” the song that tells the story of this transformation on the recent Nikki Nack, and jumbled new and old songs together, so an interloper might have imagined this group has never been at a loss as to how to express itself. But their dynamism and confidence is the result of hard work and preparation, and they make no attempt to hide or transcend this fact. Tune-Yards remain one album behind St. Vincent, numerically if not developmentally, but there’s no reason to suppose, despite a vibrant sound that could conceivably be tailored to spectacle, that they’ll soon adopt the production values and thematic ambition of St. Vincent’s recent tour. The difference is Garbus, who’s a commanding stage presence in Annie Clark’s league, and yet not so much superhuman as abundantly human. Nikki Nack is ripe with lyrical anxiety about Garbus proving herself as a musician after a wholly intuitive approach yielded such successful results on her first two albums. Instead of blindly continuing down that path, she studied her craft. “She set office hours,” as Barry Walters put it in his excellent review of the album. All excess energy gets re-invested in her music.
So, a Tune-Yards show is ecstatically opposed to a high concept approach, but has visual sense—carnivalesque, with face paint and brightly colored wardrobe—and moments. An extended version of “Stop That Man,” edging into a “Blue Monday” homage, ended with Garbus’s two backup singers walking to the front of the stage, staring down the crowd, and opening their mouths as widely as possible so that the screeching music became their screams, made them alien. The effect was horror-movie chilling, and I hope it’s not breaking an unwritten rule or spoiling a culminating moment to publish a photo of the silent shout.
Time of Dark
Wait for a Minute
Real Live Flesh
Stop That Man