Let’s be honest. The genre of Folk has some pretty stringent elicitation attached to its name. Generally, folk music, and thus its listeners, is thought of as earthy and free with roots in deeply emotional and personal music containing a stripped down sound. All of this, of course, makes sense considering the word folk is a derivative of the German word for people. Additionally, nostalgic images of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul, and Mary seep through the subconscious, making folk music one of the most defined and rigid modern genres today.
But what would music be without dissenters to reform the mold and break boundaries? Enter Merrill Garbus the mind behind the one-woman band tUnE-yArDs. While moderns acts like Fleet Foxes, Department Of Eagles and even in some instances Beck, have pushed folk’s limits in recent years, few artists have thought so grandly outside the box. By combining traditional folk themes and aesthetics – her vocals, the uncluttered sound of her music – with a variety of genres and approaches, most notably her wide use of many do it yourself (DIY) techniques.
On tUnE-yArDs debut album, BiRd-BrAiNs, Garbus show’s her full range, both vocally and experimentally. Because
the album is intimately centered on just her, Garbus’ strengths and weaknesses are on full display. On three of the album’s strongest pieces, Sunlight, Jamaica, and Jumping, Garbus shows us her vocal intensity and the amount of emotion depth within it, while humming along to thumping rhythms akin to the rawest electronic imaginable – think Animal Collective stripped down to their barest form. T-Y’s sound on these tracks is so contrasted between fuzzy, warm vocals and harsh accompaniment that it’s impossible not to be intrigued.
Garbus appropriately concludes the album with the folksiest song, Synonynonym. With
out intense beats to distort and mutate her vocals and with only a soft acoustic guitar playing by her side, Garbus is given free reign of the sound palate, hitting her highs and lows perfectly,
Still, Garbus’ strengths, her range and power, end up being the defining features of her most sub-par songs as well. On songs like Little Tiger, Safety, and Lions, the attempt to pair vocals and synthesized percussion proves futile. Instead of combining her various elements – she tends to add in sampled organic sound, like a child laugher – to form a cacophonous wall of sound, these songs end up loud and overwhelming.
Hatari, BiRd-BrAiNs most experimental and interesting song sees Garbus splitting vocals between screaming a range of wails and chanting incomprehensible lyrics over a Bhangra-influenced measures. Unlike the aforementioned faulted tracks, Hatari succeeds in forming a tight bond between noise and folk, an unlikely marriage that proves very rewarding with enough listens. When I first heard this song I could not stand it, but after a few additional tries I found myself humming the tune repeatedly.
The beauty of tUnE-yArDs music lies deep within each song. The layers of meaning deep beneath the surface of the songs, but because of the subtleness of each song’s features, there is enough appeal to encourage multiple listens. Additionally, because of the vastness of T-Y’s musical influences and characteristics, appreciation for any given song is entirely objective, with no one song truly awful or unlistenable.
BiRd-BrAiNs is not for everyone. Many, in fact most, will find this album to be uncouth, scattered, assaulting, and loud. But for the select patient few who can stand the initial shock of such innovation awaits an album richer than the world of folk has seen for quite some time. Finally, old souls have a new day.