Monday, January 7, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #222 - Tune-Yards - Bird-Brains

 2009 was an interesting year for music. There were no real game-changers in 2009, but there was at least one album that presaged a dominant mode of music-making in the 2010’s: Tune-Yards’ Bird-Brains. The debut record from Merrill Garbus’ discordant pop outfit is an outstanding record, not only for how it set the stage for Tune-Yards’ continued growth, but also for how it weaves the mid-00’s indie rock sensibilities with the out-there, lo-fi, rhythmic production styles that rose to even greater prominence in the recent teens. Add in some seriously engaging political rhetoric, and it’s easy to see that Bird-Brains is well worth your time.
            Recorded entirely on a handheld voice recorder (and then released initially on recycled cassette tapes), Bird-Brains has a distinctly tinny feeling. Garbus’s music offers steady, thumping rhythms that put the listener into a sort of tranced, zoned state and while the instrumentation is danceable, the lyrics are anything but; throughout the album, Garbus sings of gendered injustices, motherhood, and problems of self-image. “Hatari,” the album’s lead single, is dangerous in how much it makes you want to groove while ignoring the injustices being sung about. The lyrics and instrumentation hit that perfect sweet spot between frictional and lovely, making it easy to understand Bird-Brains as an album of contradictions and double-standards; it’s a deceptively complicated album filled with elements both harsh and tender that force the listener to listen without passivity.
Consider, for example, the interminably groovy mid-album cut “Jumping Jack.” The bass is crunchy, the xylophone seems to be hitting the upper register limits of the recorder, and the simple drum-fill takes on a Madlib-esque vocal quality. Like other great Tune-Yards songs, the lyrics rework a nursery rhyme (“Jack and Jill” here) into a modern feminist anthem that provides ample catharsis in a world overwhelmed by patriarchal standards: “Driving past in his fast car / Jill says man you are bizarre / Trying to tell me what to do / Watch out cause I’ll knock you out,” Garbus sings simply and softly, weaponizing her traditionally feminine musical impulses over the more traditionally masculine instrumentation. Garbus forces us to recognize how she’s using these musical impulses, and how the gendered presuppositions of them is ultimately a negative aspect that the music industry stands to grow from.
            There are moments like this feminist catharsis on nearly every song on Bird-Brains, and the album is better for it. “Fiya,” the album’s most well-known track, offers a nuanced, understated perspective on feminine image issues that is equal parts bitter sadness and incredible rage. Likewise, “News” attempts to critique the inherent gendered power dynamic with the act of getting pregnant; “I can get real pregnant from men and birds / Who sing much prettier than you,” Garbus conveys, undermining the masculine figure’s potential. Garbus’s lyrics are never quite heavy-handed, but neither are they understated – just like all of the gonzo rhythmic palettes throughout the album.
Yet, Bird-Brains is not entirely angry; there is a certain sweetness that pervades even the record’s harshest moments, one that, for all the rage and dissatisfaction, still envisions a better world. That stage is set by the album’s opening track, “For You,” which has Garbus sing an empathetic four bars over a tender acoustic guitar to a young girl. After she’s done singing, we hear that young girl enthusiastically playing with blueberries; there’s discovery here, an innocence yet untarnished by the overwhelmingly negative world so prominent on the rest of the album. It should come as no surprise that that young girl never comes back on Bird-Brains. Garbus could only protect her from the realities of our world for so long, but the album she made for her – whoever she is – offers a steady, helpful, groovy guide to this overwhelmingly shitty world.
So do the rest of the works in Tune-Yards’ discography. W H O K I L L, 2011’s follow-up, is a defining record of the 21st century, expanding in interesting ways on the groundwork set by Bird-Brains. Most recently, Garbus scored one of the most emphatically political films of 2018, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which viciously, hysterically points out the myriad of flaws in our capitalist society. Likewise, Tune-Yards’ most recent record, I can feel you creep into my private life, finds Garbus confronting the ways that she could be a better political citizen, all the while combining the powerful rhetoric with rhythmic, exuberant, groovy instrumentation. With Tune-Yards, being angry takes on a certain fun quality.
-          Harry Todd

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