23.11.2009, Words by Charlie Jones


Merrill Garbus, the artist behind the one-woman project TuNe-YaRds, is here to take you on a journey, but this is to be no ordinary trip.

The road will take you from the confines of her apartment, where she recorded this album, on a voyage encompassing the sounds of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Swiss Alps. Crossed with 50s America and experimental folk but brought right up to date and like nothing you have ever heard before, with a ukulele thrown in for good measure.

Hailing from New England, ‘BiRd-BrAiNs’ is the debut from Garbus who recorded the album herself in Montreal using a digital voice recorder mixed on Shareware software to create an album so DIY it should be bad, but this patchwork of music and samples is, well, really good.

Influence from her time spent living in Kenya is obvious across both the album and her unique vocal style, especially in songs like Hatari – meaning danger in Swahili. It sounds like a cross between a yodel and a traditional chant from somewhere deep in the human psyche, a powerful adult cry underpinned by a big tribal drum. She folds this in with sampled beats closer to the trip-hop of Portishead with a wide ranging vocal, from sweet falsetto to Bjork like in her screams and yelps. Garbus is sometimes reminiscent of 90s female grunge like L7 or The Breeders, who incidentally included her on the bill for the ATP they recently curated.

When it comes to percussion, Garbus often sounds like she has just grabbed the closest item to her in the house, in News it sounds as if she were simultaneously banging the kitchen table and milk bottles looping them to create a driving rhythm. She then immediately dips you back in to the dark hot underbelly of Jamaica with a healthy serving of paranoia. With the refrain of I See You she evokes the feeling of being followed in a similar sinister way as created by The Cure in Subway Song.

Sunlight is as delicate as the title suggests whilst maintaining shadows with its rocky minor chords and pushing undercurrent of a bass line, occasionally crackling when the basic recording equipment can’t take any more. The distortion making it feel as if you are experiencing her live, Garbus makes you realise how studio polished everything is these days, the lo-fi quality is refreshing although maybe hard work for some.

Her songs are awash with references to nursery rhymes and bedtime stories from the repetitive refrain of Jumping Jacks, evocative of all those handclap games girls play at school to Safety where she incorporates sounds that are reminiscent of animated characters from an old Disney cartoon.

This childlike influence comes from the two summers she spent as a nanny in Martha’s Vineyard where she collected voice recordings included here in the form of conversations with a little boy about blueberries. She seems to utilise samples like these to bookend songs in the same way Air did on ‘Moon Safari’ and ‘Premiers Symptomes’, immersing you in her world.

In continuation with the DIY aesthetic the album was released earlier this year with a limited run of a 1000 hand-screen-printed covers on retro cassette and vinyl, the reason being that she wanted to slow down the listener preventing them from hopping about the album as if it were on i-Tunes. The same intention goes, she says, for the upper and lower case mashing of her name and album title. Now having toured extensively in North America with the likes of Dirty Projectors she has embarked on a European tour in support of the release of BiRd-BrAiNs by 4AD featuring two bonus tracks.

At the end of a long journey through Merrill’s memories, thoughts and musings you feel exhausted, having been guided through the hot sweltering streets of Kenya and floated gently though sunshine and summer holidays by the sea. Until, on the other side you are deposited, breathless, but feeling wiser and eagerly looking forward to your next trip.

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