tUnE-yArDs @ The Haunt, Brighton 21.06.11

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tune-yards live in Brighton 3

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.

(continues overleaf)

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7 Responses to tUnE-yArDs @ The Haunt, Brighton 21.06.11

  1. Brigette Adair July 19, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Oh, what a fantastic review Lucy Cage! I finally feel at peace on the subject-the difference between the alchemy of the live performance and something missing in the recordings. That version of Real Live Flesh is truly spectacular (the way she hits those drums made my heart flutter!). I probably won’t listen to w h o k i l l, but if I have a chance to see her live, I will! * bows to Lucy

  2. Nate M July 19, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    yesyesyes!!! Lucy perfectly captures what thrills me about Merrill/tUnE-yArDs. Live vs. record are two different beasts. Brigette, I’m sorry you missed the duo tUne show @ Sec. Squirrel supporting bird-brain album (’08?), not to mention Merrill’s fat baby puppet show in Brattleboro, VT (’04?), such experiences might’ve helped lift whatever soured your review with affected weirdness accusations and projected needy acceptance, or perhaps just a general distrust of the golden gleam off a suspiciously shiny ‘fork. I can understand that very founded suspicion, but don’t let it blur the bottom line: Merrill is stepping on stage to make intoxicating unlikely magic

  3. Princess Stomper July 19, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    You make me want to be a better writer. 🙂

  4. sid July 20, 2011 at 2:28 am

    ahhh … i thought you were holding out on us ed, thanks for the much needed lucy cage fix!

  5. THE RECOMMENDER BLOG July 20, 2011 at 7:43 am

    A lovely piece. I live in Brighton, but happened to be away from town for this show. I was pretty gutted that I missed it, but having read your wonderful review I now realise I should in fact be utterly decimated that I missed it.

  6. Tom R July 20, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    I don’t know if I buy this dichotomy between t-y live vs on record. I still listen to “Fiya” from her first record a lot and it never fails to move me. “Sunrise” and “Hatari” too. I’ve been told to expect a fidelity upgrade with the new one, and I can’t imagine that it would blunt the emotional impact that Merrill brought to the first one. Since when has it been news that a band was better live than on record?

    Still, I’m open to the fact that I might be eating these words should I get the chance to see them.

  7. hannah golightly July 20, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    The Haunt venue was one of my faves that I visited at the Brighton Great Escape Festival this year. The sound there was sketchy though and some bands lost the power of their set due to it.

    I love this piece. Really cool.

    I’m still not sure about Tuneyards (and can’t quite bring myself to type it in the upper and lower case that it’s naffly supposed to be done in.) Having said that, this piece made me take another listen. The video captures something special… I love the sexy drumming and it really works well for her performance- better than any singer/synth-playing front person and possibly even cooler than singers with guitars, which is saying something.

    I’m starting to wonder if she isn’t in fact the world’s new Bjork.

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