Vinyl LP pressing housed in hand-screened recycled jacket with lyric sheet puzzle and digital download access. 2009 debut album from Canadian singer/songwriter Merrill Garbus (AKA Tune-Yards). The album was recorded on a digital voice recorder and assembled using shareware mixing software. Garbus' primary instrument is ukulele, to this she adds her own field recordings-- the sound outside her window, a child being asked about blueberries, indistinct creaks and clatter-- along with occasional percussion that seems to consist of whatever nearby could be smacked or shaken. Some songs loop these elements into mini-epics that bring to mind an early, crude version of Juana Molina's one-woman-band aesthetic. Sonic.
Review by Heather Phares
Though tUnE-yArDs’ debut album Bird-Brains was eventually released by the famed indie label 4AD, it began as truly independent music. Merrill Garbus (also of Sister Suvi) recorded the album at home with a digital voice recorder and shareware recording software, patching together artfully messy beats, ukulele, field recordings, and her surprisingly rich, almost androgynous voice into songs with folk purity and the boldness of mash-ups. Despite -- or more likely, because of -- the pared-down instrumentation, Bird-Brains is equally eclectic and personal. She ends the winding melody of “For You” with spoken word snippets of her and a child eating blueberries, then seamlessly shifts abruptly to "Sunlight"'s bludgeoning beats and high-strung guitars. Throughout, Garbus pulls off stunning contrasts, whether it’s her torchy voice and lyrics like “tiny teenage cocks” giving “When You Tell the Lions”’ simple melody a surprising worldliness, or “Jumping Jack”’s brittle percussion and massive bass lending a menacing edge to its nursery-rhyme chant. Best of all is “Hatari”’s exotic yet homespun pop, which layers Garbus’ barbaric yawp over a beat that feels like a bhangra/hip-hop hybrid. Even on the album’s more straightforward songs, there’s something surprising to be found, like the coughs used as percussion on “Jamaican.” With all of Bird-Brains’ sonic intricacy, it takes a little while to appreciate Garbus’ equally smart and evocative lyrics, although “Synonym”’s “You remind me of when I didn’t have to wear any clothes … you remind me of the person you used to be” stand out immediately. Few debut albums are audacious enough to call to mind Odetta, M.I.A., and the Raincoats -- often all at the same time -- but this is just such a rare bird.
When you talk about lo-fi more or less inspired by folk, the best stuff always carries with it a sense of discovery. Cheap and tinny acoustic music should feel like something you stumbled upon, like maybe you dug it out of an old drawer or rescued it from the freebee bin in the thrift store. And then the force of the music should sparkle through the grit and hiss and distortion and make you think you understand something about the person making it. It's a romantic notion, one not necessarily based in reality. But the best music in this vein manages to convey a sense of intimacy, as if it's a one-to-one conversation between the artist and the listener.
That's how BiRd-BrAiNs feels. It's the debut album by Merrill Garbus' tUnE-yArDs (she's the lone member of the band) and it was recorded on a digital voice recorder and assembled using shareware mixing software. Garbus' primary instrument is ukulele, the tone of which is thin and trebly and lonesome, the sound you usually get from a barrel-scraping demos collection issued long after someone is dead. To this she adds her own field recordings-- the sound outside her window, a child being asked about blueberries, indistinct creaks and clatter-- along with occasional percussion that seems to consist of whatever nearby could be smacked or shaken. Some songs loop these elements into mini-epics that bring to mind an early, crude version of Juana Molina's one-woman-band aesthetic; others sound like they're being whispered around a late-night campfire burning a few tents over. The "production" is rough, and not always in an appealing way. The sub-demo quality's most annoying attribute is the blocky digital clipping that happens whenever the voice recorder is overloaded, which is often. So if you don't have a tolerance for cut-rate sonics-- and this isn't even the warm analog stuff-- forget about it. But if you do, the best songs on BiRd-BrAiNs can sneak up on you.
The ultimate draw is Garbus' voice, which can be husky and serious or else pitched up to make her sound like a kid humming to herself to pass the time. She's got a respectable amount of power and range, but more importantly, she sings with abandon. Take "Sunlight", a track that made its way around as a pre-release mp3. On it she begins low and sensual, purring the verses like a 1970s folkie about to lay down something heavy as a for-real drum kit bangs out a half-funk loop and an electric guitar scratches along. And then the song pivots and Garbus explodes into the chorus. Each successive "I could be the sunlight in your eyes, couldn't I?" is more desperate than the last, the frantic plea of someone who has never been seen. It's cathartic even as it leaves you hanging, the sort of song that begs for repeat plays.
Only one other song matches "Sunlight", and I'll get to it in a moment, but several others come close. "Lions" is both charming and creepy, halfway between a singsong schoolyard rhyme and a graveyard blues. The wordless vocalizations in the folk-hop "Hatari" could fairly be described as yodeling, but Garbus sells the warble with her fearlessness (here's someone who never bothered to wonder if she might be annoying people, and her boldness gives her an edge.) "There is a natural sound that wild things make when they're bound" is "Hatari"'s closing line, which is a perfect description of Garbus' unhinged mode. In between the best moments are some formless stretches populated with a few decent songs that never quite fulfill their promise. Still, the time spent collecting and assembling (BiRd-BrAiNs was put together over two years) turned up a few things worth holding onto.
Like "Fiya", the second-to-last song, which manages to grab the best elements of everything that came before. We get a simple and pretty melody on the verses, the "seems like it's always been around" kind of tune Devendra Banhart wrote so effortlessly on Rejoicing in the Hands and Niño Rojo. And then there's a subtle build, where additional instruments are folded in and the clutter increases the track's intensity. The structure is a perfect match for "Fiya"'s theme, which is about transforming extreme self-loathing into something else. "What if my own skin makes my skin crawl?", Garbus wonders. She concludes that a relationship's failure only makes sense if she is, in fact, "nothing at all." And then she moves on to singing "You are always on my mind" four times, toying with the canonical phrase (it almost sounds like "were always on my mind") and making it her own before finally letting loose with that "wild thing" sound.
Her amazing wail answers her earlier question: What if your own skin makes your skin crawl? Well, maybe you try and turn those feelings into something. Like, say, write and record a terrifically moving song called "Fiya" in your living room. You'll feel a little better. And then those of us who understand those shitty feelings can sit around and listen to "Fiya", and we'll feel better too. That's what the intimacy of home-recorded music is all about.
— Mark Richardson, April 3, 2009