Words: Lucy Cage
Photography: Daniel Arthur
“I think songs should be hot and sweaty, like I am now.”
So says Merrill Garbus, midway through the best gig I’ve seen this year. Yes! Songs should be hot and sweaty. Songs should stamp and dance like she is doing. They should breathe fevered and damp on your neck, pulse tangible waves through the air, ruffle your hair with whomps of sound and life. You’ve got to feel them. Merrill’s absolutely right. Maybe this is key to the tUnE-yArDs puzzle: a band that had me hooked from the first video I saw of them but somehow failed to bottle the genie on record. The songs needed to be hot and sweaty and alive, not plasticinated by some Gunther von Hagens of a record producer.
So here’s the video that won me over: it’s filmed at an in-store gig; Merrill is cheery and peculiarly ordinary, as unflash as any toast-of-the-town musician I have ever seen. She’s wearing an awful patterned T-shirt with elephants on it and no make-up. I like her. She looks like the girl who prices up the soya milk in the health food shop. This is important. You wouldn’t catch the indie pop girly-girls with their dresses and tresses being so genuinely, unselfconsciously, gloriously plain. It makes her remarkable. Perhaps Merrill Garbus is the anti-Zooey Deschanel? I fucking hope so.
And there’s the way she scrunches up her nose and opens her big mouth wide as all get out, wide enough to swallow idiotic pop whole, The Vaccines and the Vampires and all the silly-shoed boys and hair-clipped girls, and shouts out loud. She knits her brows like a sulky toddler. Or a witch doctor. She whoops and twitters and hollers. At one point she stands and shakes her outstretched hands and growls, actually growls, for about a minute. Whoa. That got me.
As well as the look of the band, there’s the noise of it: two stand-up drummers; a battered ukulele; a jittery guitar; a pedal board. It sounds like nothing else. Which isn’t strictly true, of course: influences can be unpicked if they have to be, and zeitgeist-trailing fellow-travellers identified. I could say that she’s nicked the same percussive African guitar that Vampire Weekend have purloined; that she uses the abrasive close vocal harmonics and jagged rhythms deployed by Dirty Projectors; that I’ve seen exactly that sort of rackety bottles’n’cans percussion and awkwardness worn by Micachu and her Shapes and that Braids do a similar live-looping, multi-pedal-based, in-the-moment song construction thing. There are of course the cultural appropriations that so irk some commentators, not just the jit guits, but the polyphonic, polyrhythmic yelps and yodels of the forest-dwellers of Central Africa. But let’s go with the uniqueness.
Bloody hell, if I had overheard someone describing that band I’d have been salivating, given my long-term crush on shonky, DIY, defiantly unrock’n’roll female-fronted outfits (Pram, UT, fr’instance): I so want tUnE-yArDs to be spectacular. I so want them to ignite me.
There’re plenty of other tUnE-yArDs performances out there on video to give me hope: Merrill plays mix-and-match with band members and instruments – percussionists, brass sections, sometimes just her and her uke. There’s an obvious spark at play when she is conjuring up the music from the moment that doesn’t seem to catch on record. I loved – and agreed with – Brigitte Adair’s ace review of w h o k i l l : there’s certainly something both irritating and profoundly disappointing in the experience of listening to recorded tUnE-yArDs. Which is a shame, because Merrill Garbus has talked about the album as being shaped by playing live; being an explicit attempt to capture all that she learnt from touring her debut. If that was her intention, it has failed, although perhaps it was always a doomed endeavour, given the irreconcilable difference in nature between live and recorded versions of songs.
Usually the experience of seeing a band live is augmented by a more-or-less detailed knowledge of the music you’re hearing. You need to know what the song sounds like. Otherwise you’re missing a trick: you’re missing hearing the ghost of the recorded version buzz round your sweaty, excited, possibly drunk self with all its associations and memories. It’s a thrill-boost. A head-charged internal enhancement of your listening pleasure, Bose headphones for the soul. You know that song so well. You’ve listened to it dozens of times over in your bedroom, danced to it in the kitchen, you know every chord change and counter-melody: it’s yours. You fucking OWN it. Never mind that live the sound is dirty, that the PA is a dog, that they haven’t brought the cellist, the cheap bastards, that the bassist fluffs the chorus; it doesn’t matter because you can hear the song as it has already been laid down, you can hear the potential as tangibly as you can feel the bodies of the crowd around you. If you watch an unknown band playing unknown songs through shitty speakers, the music is really going to have its work cut out to catch your ear.