Tuesday, April 26, 2011

THE VOICE: Merrill Garbus

"Hey NBC, we're borrowin' your logo!"

Welcome to the first installment of our new ongoing series The Voice which will focus on the unique vocal stylings of some little-known and esoteric singers regardless of age, genre or hipness. For some reason is the exact same title of NBC's new American Idol knockoff/ratings bounty hunter/Christina Aguilera career resuscitator that premieres tonight. I mean, what are the frickin' odds?

First up are the remarkable pipes of a woman named Merrill Garbus, whom we saw last Fall delivering a stunning Afrobeat version of Yoko Ono's "We're All Water" at L.A.'s Orpheum Theatre. Garbus, born in Connecticut and now based in Oakland, is the sole-member (save for touring bassist Nate Brenner) of the whimsically named tUnE-yArDs, and like other lineup-challenged bands like The Ting Tings, The White Stripes and (The) Yeah Yeah Yeahs, her live performances are made possible by the latest in effects pedals and backing-track tech. Unlike those bands however, Garbus builds her songs -- and then deconstructs them -- live onstage. The New York Times' John Caramanica wrote of a 2009 tUnE-yArDs show just after the release of their "no-fi" debut Bird-Brains (recorded with a digital voice recorder): "[Garbus] had a floor tom at her right, a snare at her left, and for each song she would create her own rhythmic backing by using effects pedals to loop a drum beat (or vocal pattern) that she’d pound (or scat) out herself."

Battle Hymn of the Tigrrrl: Merrill Garbus
[photo courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan]

Besides percussion and loops (which she plays in her stocking feet), Garbus' musical totem of choice is the recently resurgent ukelele. Oh wait, but that's not as important as her pipes. How to describe them? Throaty, coy, rage-filled, plaintive, twee, self-referential, primeval, unhinged, ethereal -- often all at once. They take from hip hop, indie folk, African tribal singing, gospel and jazz. (Debbie Gibson, Cyndi Lauper, Ani DiFranco, Miriam Makeba, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson are just a few influences she has mentioned in interviews.) This month, Garbus released her second tUnE-yArDs effort w h o k i l l, which we surmise will go "yards" in upping her profile from the experimental-pop fringes to full-blown indie darling. Check out a couple of tracks from the new album below, because frankly we haven't come up with words to describe them yet. Is Garbus truly the first star of the Obama Era?

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