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tUnE-yArDs: Low-Fi And Beautiful 'Brains'

Merrill Garbus is a ukulele-playing Smith College graduate with a long musical history in folk-based projects. Her recordings under the name tUnE-yArDs reflect her study abroad in Kenya, her work in puppet theater and her experience as a nanny on Martha's Vineyard.

Although tUnE-yArDs' album, 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 was "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."

BiRd-BrAiNs has zero pretensions to grandeur. The electronic equipment takes Garbus' vocal equipment down a notch, paradoxically humanizing it. Most low-fi recordings muffle musical content that ordinary listeners want to hear. In tUnE-yArDs' low-fi sound, muffled textures are the musical content, which you can hear in how her voice is subsumed in the din toward the end of a song called "Sunlight."

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.

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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Christgau contributes regular music reviews to All Things Considered.
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