MELISSA BLOCK, host:
TUnE-yArDs is the name of a one-woman band that relies on found sounds, field recordings, ukulele and unusual percussion. That strange combination came together in an album that's made its way onto many critics' best lists for 2009.
And one of our critics, Robert Christgau, weighs in now with this review.
ROBERT CHRISTGAU: Merrill Garbus is a ukulele-playing Smith College graduate with a long musical history in folk style projects. TUnE-yArDs reflects her study abroad in Kenya, her work in puppet theater and her experience as a nanny on Martha's Vineyard. Here's the nursery rhyme chorus of "Lions."
(Soundbite of song, "Lions")
Ms. MERRILL GARBUS (Musician): (Singing) When you tell the lions that you love them, you love them, you love them. When you tell the lions that you love them, oh, you love them, oh.
CHRISTGAU: Although tUnE-yArDs' album, called "BiRd-BrAiNs," was created the postmodern way - with a laptop and a digital voice recorder - Garbus is a staunch bohemian who's big on slowing life down. She says the hard-to-type spelling of her band, which alternates lowercase and uppercase letters, was, and I quote, "intended to annoy people" and figures the digital distortion of her rather large voice will do the same. But she loves that vocal sound. And considering the idealized beauty large-voiced folkies generally cultivate, I say you go, woman.
This record has zero pretensions to grandeur. The electronic equipment takes Garbus' vocal equipment down a notch, paradoxically humanizing it. Most low-fi muffles musical content ordinary listeners want to hear. In tUnE-yArDs' low-fi, muffled textures are the musical content. Hear how her voice is subsumed in the din toward the end of a song called "Sunlight."
(Soundbite of song, "Sunlight")
Ms. GARBUS: (Singing) (Unintelligible)
CHRISTGAU: The tUnE-yArDs track that first caught my ear was "Hatari," which begins with Garbus' solo version of the hocketing vocal technique of Congo's Mbuti pygmies. Most Western admirers of Mbuti music try to pretty up its tapping, wavering and gurgling sounds. Like me, Garbus clearly feels they're beautiful as is.
(Soundbite of song, "Hatari")
Ms. GARBUS: (Singing in foreign language)
CHRISTGAU: Merrill Garbus says she tries to maintain a balance between the original idea of recording as documentation and the current pop practice of using it to conceal faults in the original.
But as I listened through the music to lyrics that at first seemed garbled, I noticed something else - that time-honored pop trope, the contradictions of human relationships. My favorite tUnE-yArDs song is a painful one called "Fiya." It's about being alone, about your own skin making your skin crawl. It ends: I am not beautiful. I am not beautiful. I am in bloom as the world goes underground. I am not beautiful, and I am not magic yet, but I am in bloom at the end of the world.
(Soundbite of song, "Fiya")
BLOCK: The album from tUnE-yArDs is called "BiRd-BrAiN." Our reviewer is Robert Christgau.
(Soundbite of song, "Fiya")
Ms. GARBUS: (Singing) I am not beautiful.
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