We’re a planet of organisers; rock, pop, indie, electro, americana, country and a myriad other genre and sub-genre exist to allow us to group our eclectic record collections into perfectly formed sections. However, every now again you find yourself in the record shop looking for that must-own release and you think to yourself: “Well, it could be in the ‘Dance’ section I guess, but then there’s nothing stopping it being in ‘Rock & Pop’ either.” What happens when points of comparison and reference are so disparate? It’s ruining the filing system! Well, there’s another record to add to this “Where are HMV going to file it?” list: tUnE-yArDs‘ BiRd-BrAiN.
Taking the idea of the DIY aesthetic very seriously, Merrill Garbus – the one woman that makes up the full tUnE-YaRdS line-up – recorded the vocals for the record on a digital voice recorder and then mixed the record on the free Audacity software. So, that’s pretty lo-fi then. This small list of tools is even proudly declared on the inside cover along with the statement: “You can do it”. The result is a smorgasbord of lo-fi folk, world music, R ‘n’ B pop and processed beats. All styles and reference points deployed seemingly at will across the record’s 13 tracks with Garbus having a firm grasp of each ones eccentricities.
Most of the album is scratched out on a ukulele, untold melodies weaving their way though a selection of sinister ditties that play out like fairytales of old – the versions where everyone didn’t live happily ever after. Behind the uke is the album’s biggest strength: a selection of some of the best beat sampling you’re likely to hear this year. ‘Sunlight’ features a tape-fuzz breakbeat that wouldn’t sound out off place on a DJ Shadow record; ‘News’ opens with what sounds like a child banging a toy on a table; this becomes the backbone of the rhythm which is built on with milk bottle percussion.
The album’s other biggest strength (yes, it had two) is Garbus’ voice which flits effortlessly between soft lullaby, fork tongued snarl and, well, MIA; delivering messages to ex lovers: “I’m not going to stick around here anymore if you treat me badly,” and clever turns of phrase: “What if my skin makes my skin crawl?”
It’s possible to take each track on BiRd-BrAiN and dissect it – ‘Jamaican’ with its Timberland beat, ‘Lions’ sounding like a Four Tet playground rhyme – and in doing so it can reveal the album’s double edged sword. Ostensibly the album is a one-trick pony: create a beat, loop a uke part, sing over the top. Although each track is incredibly well conceived and executed, it could be argued that 13 tracks is a little over long.
That said, it shouldn’t detract from the skill and ingenuity on display. Garbus has crammed so many ideas in here it demands repeat listens to open up all the idiosyncrasies and often witty lyrics hidden in this Pandora’s Box of an album.