Thursday, August 25, 2011

Merrill’s Transcontinental Dream

For the past couple of months I’ve been listening quite a bit to the second album by Tune-Yards, called WHOKILL. I was not familiar with the band (essentially the work of the one-woman sonic/songwriting/performing phenomenon known as Merrill Garbus, with support from bassist Nate Brenner and a small variety of others) until numerous references to the new, breakthrough release, kept crossing my radar. Tune-Yards gained major traction this spring with buzz-worthy performances at music festivals such SXSW and Pitchfork.

Why? A few listens make it clear: Garbus’ quirky combination of Afro-pop, jazz and folk is delivered with a hint of punk DIY and hip-hop spunk, adding up to one of the most original albums I’ve heard in years.

It’s not always easy listening. True to the punk and hip-hop shades of the palette, it has a hint of discomfort and agitas. Mostly, though it’s incredibly inventive, especially given that its built upon Merrill’s powerful, soulful singing, propulsive rhythmic loops and ukelele run through various sonic effects. (It ain’t your uncle’s uke, that’s for sure; or even Amanda Palmer’s, Eddie Vedder’s or whoever else has joined the uke parade in recent years, either). No, in fact, most of the time you wouldn’t guess it’s a ukelele at all.

Throw in some bass guitar and a bit of sax or marimba here and there and that’s the whole of it. But it adds up to a lot – at times even creating a wonderful cacophony, as on the opening track, “My Country.”

Merrill, a 30-something New England native now based in Oakland, Calif., has a fascinating background, which I first heard about back in May in one of the always-interesting Sound Opinion podcasts. (Highly recommended, listen to it here.) She tells some wonderful stories in an endearingly humble, yet confident way. Her explanation of how she came up with her band’s name is magically cinematic.

Not long after hearing that podcast, I caught the video of her in-studio performance on KCRW’s “Morning Become Eclectic.” (Watch it here.) I was hooked. But it wasn’t until I bought WHOKILL and listened to it repeatedly in the ensuing weeks that the full power of this performer hit me.

Since then, the Eno-meets-Marley vibe and catchy choruses of “Bizness” have made the song a bonafide hit, drawing yet more attention to the album. Like most of the songs, it’s built around Garbus’ multi-tracked vocals, sweet-and-sour inflections and occasional vocal asides dropped in here and there. She gets maximum effect out of so many of these little embellishments. Overall, it’s a superb balance of raw and refined, simple and nuanced.

“Gangsta” is another popular cut off the CD and a good example of that. It’s powerful but spare percussion and horn interjections percolate beneath multi-layered vocals that recall Petra Haden’s amazing all a cappella renditions of full albums such as The Who Sell Out.

Yet, part of what’s wonderful about WHOKILL is that right on the heels of the hip urbanity of a song like “Gangsta,” Garbus follows it with a sweetly melodic power-pop song like “Powa” (though a careful listen to the lyrics reveals far from innocent fare). Of course, after that, it’s back to the rockin’ riot of, well, “RiotRiot.”

Another of my fave tracks on WHOKILL is the whimisical “You Yes You,” with it’s bouncing bass line, jaunty electrified uke strumming and picking and Merrill’s scat-like singing and layered choruses. Who’d have thought a uke could sound like Pete Townshend’s Rickenbacker circa 1966?

All in all, not only does Merrill Garbus make some really interesting music with Tune-Yards, she has something to say, too. I’m intrigued enough to be checking her out when she comes to town in next month.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Beatles vs. Stones

It’s the “Coke or Pepsi?” question of rock: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?

Most of us have an immediate, visceral response: a gut reaction based on one band striking an inner chord in a way that the other just doesn’t.

For me, it’s The Stones. Always has been, though as I’ve grown older, the question prompts a bit more pause and pondering. But as much as I love The Beatles, the bluesy grit, funky grooves and maximum riffage of Keith & Co. wins out over the pop songcraft, progressive artistry and sonic experimentalism of The Beatles.

Of course, it is a bit of an apples-and-oranges consideration from today’s vantage point (as opposed to weighing the two choices in, say, 1968 or ’69). The Stones have been an active enterprise for nigh on a half-century. The Beatles body of work represents a mere decade. What they did in that brief period of time is unparalleled. On the other hand, The Stones longevity (or at least The Glimmer Twins’) is unmatched in rock music, even if they’ve had an orchestra’s worth of players pass through the ranks.

But, as Mick said during his band’s ill-fated December 1969 visit to a Northern California racetrack,. “Why must we fight?” So, in the spirit of detente between the two camps:

Here’s a fun mashup: “Sympathy for the Devil” meets “With a Little Help From My Friends.”