Tune-Yards – I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life (4AD/Beggars)
Bummed out by Bjork’s latest turn toward the turgid? Merrill Garbus of TuneYards creates the kind of joyous, genre-busting dance music that’s a spiritual sister to Bjork’s earliest, carefree days; their approaches are quite different, but they share a delight in exploring the full range of their voices, set to a smorgasbord of sound and insistent grooves. Melodies are stretched up and down the scale, going wherever they can—because the woman in charge can do just about anything.
It’s Garbus’s voice that draws you in, but it’s the seemingly endless musical invention underneath her that keeps you coming back. With bassist Nate Brenner, she jumps all over the map: reggae basslines and West African grooves and Balkan harmonies, all filtered through an electronic lens that embraces glitchiness and distortion. As a result, all that globetrotting never feels tied to any particular place. If that seems like that could be a bit of a mess, it’s not. Far from it: Garbus and Brenner never clutter the basic groove, and every song is full of pop hooks that could easily be schoolyard skipping rhymes.
It’s avant-garde pop music that succeeds on every level, and without compromise. It’s what hundreds of other artists try to achieve and can’t. Best of all, Tune-Yards never tries to draw attention to its own cleverness: none of those weird little bits are a distraction. They enhance all the excellence that’s already there.
That’s the music. Lyrically, Garbus is considerably more self-conscious than she is musically or vocally. Cognizant of the fact she’s a white American woman enamoured with African music, dance and fashion, she embarks on some serious self-examination, questioning her “white centrality” in the lyrics. While well-intentioned, there’s a great danger of these lyrics sounding like a hectoring lecture on intersectionality, a semiotic ouroboros of white guilt eating itself: “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men.” But again, Garbus sidesteps this pitfall: she communicates big ideas with ease, not just with the economy of her words, but with welcoming melodies and her inherent charisma: “I don’t want to be a woman if it means not being human” is set to a melody that could easily be a Beyoncé hit. In a song where the chorus is as basic as you can get—“ABC 123 LMNOP”—she starts off with this cheery couplet: "Fan the fire or face the crowd / California's burning down / Sitting in the middle of the sixth extinction / Silenting suggesting the investment in a generator."
Yes, it seems like the world is ending. No, that shouldn’t be a reason to stop dancing and singing at the top of your lungs, cognizant of the world around you and choosing to embrace every possibility at your disposal. Whether the music of TuneYards would feel as urgent or as necessary in any other geopolitical context is hard to say. But in the dark days of early 2018, it’s a life-saver. (Jan. 26)
TuneYards play the Danforth Music Hall on March 6.
Stream: “Heart Attack,” “ABC 123,” “Home”