Dan Jacobson reviews Tune-Yards’ forthcoming album, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life.
Music, fundamentally, is about patterns. Time signatures, key signatures, scales, motifs, melodic patterns; they all exist for the sole purpose of making music, for lack of a better word, predictable, and if you deviate from any of these, the music sounds ‘wrong’. The challenge for musicians is to be as creative as possible while working within the constraints set upon them. The most engaging and talented musicians sound unpredictable, yet still technically observe these rules.
Merrill Garbus, the creative force behind Tune-Yards, has been subverting these patterns since her debut record Bird-Brains in 2009. Her music is dense and complicated, in the style of other excellent records like Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca or Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam. In each of her records, which have steadily increased in both popularity and quality, Garbus treads a fine line between experimentation and pretentiousness (see the stylisation “tUnE-yArDs”). Recent Animal Collective projects have struggled to maintain such a balance. Laced with African influences and an acerbic political wit, Garbus on the other hand has always succeeded in maintaining her balance, her music being potent, yet surprisingly approachable.
‘Look At Your Hands’, the lead single from fourth record I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, is decisively more immediate. This is the first record where long-time collaborator Nate Brenner is officially a band member, and his presence is made clear with the track’s fantastic groove, provided by his throbbing bass. In addition, the track retains glimpses of typical Tune-Yards, with Garbus’ acrobatic vocals, percussionised and doubled-up, infusing the track with a child-like playfulness.
Garbus’ creativity is most apparent when Bremner’s presence is most obvious. Opening track ‘Heart Attack’ builds up its keyboards, excited percussion and layered vocals over the course of the song, culminating in a glorious cacophony of noise. Second single ‘ABC 123’ also makes use of Garbus’ chants, syncopated melodies and explosive lyrics to provide another injection of adrenaline. As the harmonies build around her, she shouts, “I called you up because we had a great connection/You couldn’t hear me ‘cause of NSA protection/But we’ll unite before the very next election/No abstentions! VOTE/The ABCs” – these are particularly pertinent lyrics in the light of the album’s title.
“I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of troubles with African men”, opens Garbus on ‘Colonizer’, perhaps the album’s most intriguing song. To many, this would seem ironic, given the strength of these influences in Garbus’ music and the frankness of lines such as “I use my white woman’s voice to contextualise acts of my white women friends”. I have always been worried by the fine line taken by Tune-Yards – the project sometimes runs the risk of being misconstrued as ‘cultural appropriation’ by some listeners. However, owing to her articulate views and the skill with which her talents are performed, it is difficult to see how these influences cannot come from a place of appreciation. In the words of Reggie Watts, referring to her 2014 album Nikki Nack, “it’s music, and music is for everybody.”
It is possible that Garbus slightly misjudges the pace of the record, with the tracks following ‘Look At Your Hands’ slightly lacking the first half’s liveliness. The exception to this is the bursts of violent energy on ‘Private Life’, the penultimate song. However, at its best points, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life displays the exciting directions in which Tune-Yards can evolve their sound. Garbus has been successful in the past, and this record assures us that she can continue to be so.
Featured image credit: 4AD