tue 07/07/2020

tUnE-yArDs, Scala | reviews, news & interviews

tUnE-yArDs, Scala

tUnE-yArDs, Scala

Lullaby sweet, spoilt child brash, and 100 percent brilliant

Honestly, I had to get up from my desk to pace the room, I was so joyfully agitated. Could this record really be as bold, fresh, blackly amusing and intimidating as it appeared to be? Each new track seemed like another paragraph of a manifesto that said, “Anything is still possible within the parameters of the four-minute pop song, despite what the current malaise of constantly recycled riffs, beats and melodies might have you believe.” So, as you can imagine, I was looking forward to last night’s sold-out gig at the Scala. Would the live experience live up to the studio confection?

Well, there were several surprises in regard to the live show. Firstly, I was expecting a heavy reliance on samples to fill out the sound, particularly in the rhythm section. Instead, it was great fun to see Ms Garbus beating the crap out of a snare and bass drum from the off, laying down the grooves, which then became looped, so that her hands were free to pick up her trusty ukulele. Which leads me to the second surprise: I had no idea how much ukulele there actually was on the album. It’s astonishing what a full and aggressive sound can be got from this modest four-stringed instrument with the aid of a distortion pedal and an aggressive playing style.

So the fact there was no guitarist in the band wasn’t an issue. With bassist Nate Brenner and sax players Kasey Knudsen and Matt Nelson all doubling on various percussion instruments, there was never a moment when the live sound didn’t have the panoramic scale of the studio recordings. The next surprise was that Garbus and co already have the kind of rabid following usually restricted to boy bands and rock gods. Every song was recognised and enthusiastically greeted with whoops, whistles and applause from the mostly young crowd, after only a few notes. In fact, in one instance (the chirpy murder fantasy “Doorstep”) after only a couple of shakes of the tambourine and half a dozen thumps of the bass drum.

So, what’s so great about this ostensibly pretentious band that prefer their name to appear in print looking like a typographical mountain range? Well, it’s partly that tUnE-yArDs have their cake and eat it. They are anarchically adventurous in their arrangements yet at the same time all their songs are fizzing with hooks and mini-hooks, so that barely a minute passes without an audience member yodelling, screaming or singing along. Last night they also demonstrated they were a formidable live unit. Brenner’s beautifully understated, wholly functional bass lines provided a reliable anchor, and the two sax players brought to mind Bowie’s textural, almost orchestral use of the instrument. And then there’s those never-generic rhythms expertly measured out by Garbus as she simultaneously delivered her acrobatically versatile vocals.

Yes, Garbus’s vocals; the last but by no means least important part of the sonic cubist jigsaw that makes up tUnE-yArDs. “Androgynous” is one word that’s been used to describe them, but I disagree. They are wholly feminine but in a fully rounded way, rather than in the way most female vocals simply land on a persona they feel obliged to consistently project (cute, sexy, sultry, exotic) and are then obliged to stick to. However, with Garbus you get everything from Cassandra Wilson cool, to Janis Joplin unhinged; from soaring Broadway histrionics to pseudo-operatic, primal-chant minimalism.

It seemed quite fitting that the final song before the encore was “My Country”; the album’s opener - the tune that first had me pacing the room in disbelief at its cocky pizzazz and quirky charm. Garbus bent over the keyboard to play its simple cheesy synthesiser chords, which somehow aren’t cheesy because of their context within this song. And there lies another secret of the tUnE-yArDs sound: don’t give them want they want; give them what they don’t even know they want, and give it to them with bells on. Garbus's songs are sometimes lullaby sweet, sometimes spoilt-child brash, sometimes tumescent with an almost predatory sexuality, but always pushed to the very edge of order. Most goose-pimple-inducing gig so far this year.

Watch tUnE-yArDs performing “Bizness” in a record shop somewhere

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This is a really great review of what was a superb gig. The grooves were addictive, her voice incredible, the whole outfit tight. An awesome night - my toes are still tapping!

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