It’s late, and I just came back from seeing Merrill Garbus – the frenetic, juicy, pulsing source behind New England’s tUnE-yArDs – performing with two headbanded saxophonists and a sombre bass player at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto.
The violent pounding of Merrill’s drumstick against skin, the gleaming polish of the Alto saxophone, the reverberations of the electrically charged ukelele… If you think you’ve heard tUnE-yArDs before (and perhaps you’re even bold enough to venture that you understand the deliberately tangled percussion arrangements) seeing Merrill and her band perform is an act of stepping into a kaleidoscope in the process of being shaken wildly.
Many things are improvised, the dialogue is crackling between performer and audience (Phrases such as “This is where we jump!” turn the crowd into a synchronized trampoline act worthy of an indie film scene). Never has a crowd been so happy to crush their brand new Converses for a chance to actually have fun at a concert.
Listening to tUnE-yArDs live is like cracking open a watermelon on your head and letting the juices flow down your neck and shoulders. It’s sticky, refreshing, and “music as statement art” – but what exactly is Merrill saying?
And how exactly is she saying it?
First, it’s important to think about the framework of where she has come from. Her 2009 album BiRd-BrAiNs was entirely self-produced and recorded using a handheld recorder. Likely stemming from a desire to retain economical production costs, this medium captures the echoey vocals and gritty percussive smashes which are now incorporated into her live show on a grander scale.
Despite a particular fondness for the loop pedal, Merrill’s voice remains strikingly pure and unaffected even when layered in triplicate. This stands in stark contrast to many female musicians who enter the business only to be mastered and manipulated beyond recognition, which then forces them to haplessly recreate their live sound for an audience bred on digital perfection.
By pushing the borders on what an “acceptable” female musician should sound like, Merrill not only strives to break the barrier between male and female musicians, but audience members as well. The gender ratio of a concert audience can be pre-determined with a few simple criteria:
1) Is there an attractive female in the band?
One is fine and can draw men in droves, but too many female musicians indicate that this music is more “appropriate” for female fans, and the men will tend to come begrudgingly with their girlfriends.
2) Is she playing the guitar or the keyboards?
The masculinization and feminization of music instruments is inherent in their shape and sound quality – keys are soft, strokable, tamable, and usually used as accompaniment to humdrum romantic power ballads.
On the other hand, a guitar is meant to be pounded, reverberated, and generally abused (think of common visual of a guitar being smashed by an artist on stage). Given the typical gender roles that men and women usually fall into, it’s no surprise that men naturally gravitate towards lead guitarist and women towards keyboard accompaniment.
And this is how Merrill breaks all the rules. She may play a delicate toy instrument – a ukelele – but her methods of playing are aggressive, strong, and forceful. She has the rare ability to play the drums while singing (see: women are great at multi-tasking). A master of crescendo and decrescendo, she instinctively knows when to pull back. No matter her dynamic technique, she never strays into the dangerous pit of twee ukelele players (a 2011 trend which should blow over once everyone’s bangs grow out).
Perhaps she’s not intentionally making any statements at all. But when I see her perform live, I think that maybe it’s a little easier for young female musicians to get messy with their music, to stop sounding sweet and start sounding fierce.