There’s a blog called Awesome Tapes from Africa that posts the author’s samples of what happens when Africans actually pick their musical output. The output of the blog has, at times, expanded my idea of African musics. It’s not that the tapes radically alter musical forms, rather it’s that we get to hear voices we don’t usually hear constructing pop musics for a populace with whom we share similar tastes. Take this tape by Ninie: her stuff has the hallmarks of a woman making pop by her own means. It makes me wonder if Peter Gabriel is some type of misogynistic bastard vetoing any original female album from Africa. Or maybe, just maybe, Ninie is that original?
How does this relate to the world of tUnE-yArDs? Well, it’s quite simple. The flush blooms of off kilter pop the U.S. has been producing of late sound a lot like African pop music. Animal Collective, Vampire Weekend: they’re all rooted in Sounds of Soweto, those rare samplers of ethnic pop making it overseas. But tUnE-yArDs, who obviously borrow from soul and gospel too, can at times make the slim confines of those band’s ethnic aesthetics seem simple.
This is music made by someone who is steadfastly open to the world. tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, a white woman from New England, shrieks, shouts, and moves out into the possibilities of music, like Odetta mixing it up with Fela Kuti. But this strategy of multiphreniac bouncing between musical identities becomes tiring. Garbus knows her limits and her musical form, however the eclecticism of her iPod playlist hijacks the show and, ultimately, her musical output lacks a center. Such is a virtue, w h o k i l l is far from boring, but the album’s leaping means it lacks depth. Instead, it stutters between styles like a bag woman humming Beethevon at a metal concert. Like most albums of a similar nature, it comes down to spirituals. tUnE-yArDs is all about faith, a belief in the necessity of dispensing identity into anything and everything deemed suitable. w h o k i l l has the polish of a studio job, but still doesn’t want to settle down into the expected. The latter could be said about a lot of 4AD’s recent signings (Gang Gang Dance, Efterklang, Twin Shadow).
The songs? “My Country” blisters around in psychedelic juxtapositions before breaking into splinters. “Es-so”: not as in love with it, it actually kinda annoys me. “Gangsta” strangely reminds me of Elvis Costello’s straining rages and lyrical output on This Year’s Model, except Garbus faux-gangsta raps like a group of suburban white teenagers pretending to be black. It’s this ability to revert to a kind of infantile vision of pop music and then come back to a professionalism that produces the album’s queerness. These questions of taste and sensibility wrap tUnE-yArDs’ songs in their strange cloak. “Powa” starts off a little alterna-hymnal, Gabrus’ voice slowly growing into itself then switching into a harder chorus, a glam-rock tune being pulled down to our gravity. “Riotriot” begans all simple frail sketches, the guitar walking like a sickly insect before getting brushed off into an explosion of horns. “Bizness,” the single off the album, is just great. I would describe it, but you can just watch the video here.
tUnE-yArDs is one of the few artists that the market and the Internet have simultaneously elected into a prominent position in pop music. Her tapes, her collaborations, and her videos have all managed to capture a nascent interest – growing, for instance, into collaborations with Yoko Ono. Now that Garbus has the tenure of a label and not simply the throwaway fun of an MP3 single, she is still producing pretty good pop. This sophomore album doesn’t quite manage to enchant, but it isn’t straining for ideas either. Rather, Garbus is impassioned by such a variety of tunes that the singer tries to be all at once. That formula often boils down to a focus on a particular genre, but something in her aesthetic, the patchwork of selves and tunes that makes her fame possible, is lasting even when the strategy behind her and like-minded groups increasingly sounds stale.
Purchase: Insound | eMusic