tUnE-yArDs' jagged pop smarts

'Do you want to live!?' Merrill Garbus wants to know.

tUnE-yArDs and the Jamaican Queens perform Thursday, Aug. 2, at the Crofoot Ballroom, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac, 248-858-9333

Here's how a tUnE-yArDs show begins. A rather diverse crowd filters in. Not just earnest, true-believer hipsters, but high school kids and seniors, young married couples, some folks who look like they wandered in from a dance club or a jazz spot.

After helping her bandmates and crew set up her equipment, versatile looper-singer-songwriter Merrill Garbus, whose brainchild this is, unceremoniously takes the mic, creates a drum loop and unleashes her ukulele.

She then very ceremoniously demands of everyone in the room: "Do you want to live!?" 

And then an explosion of activity engulfs the room.

For 90 minutes or so, her face contorts in a joyously menacing fashion. Her voice winds in and out of a hundred nuances and tics. Saxophonists Matt Nelson and Noah Bernstein dance behind her, while bassist Nate Brenner plays, concentrating heavily, off to the side.

It's often explained that this cacophony of massed bodies began with Garbus alone on her laptop. But really, it began long before that, she explains in her response to a series of e-mailed questions.

She defines tUnE-yArDs as a culmination of "28 years' worth of life" — including piano lessons, English country dance, and work as a puppeteer, a nanny and an improv performer. 

On her first tUnE-yArDs record, 2009's BiRd-BrAiNs, she already exhibited pop smarts to overwhelm the music's lo-fi origins. The record was noticed quickly, and the band gigged in obscurity only briefly.

Garbus and the band have been touring behind the second tUnE-yArDs album, whokill, for more than a year, and in that time their stature has grown with their following. She's collaborated with the Roots and been on stage with Yoko Ono. And, like Ono, she likes to exploit the tensions between performer and audience. 

"Audiences seem to eventually come to love being pushed and prodded," she says. "At certain points in the show, something's happening, and it may be confrontational and a bit scary, but once you're through it and to the other side, you've gone through a passage and a process of your own, and it makes you all that much more a part of the show, as an audience member."

The pushing is political as well as aesthetic in songs that have become more global over the course of the two discs. On whokill, her lyrics seem to leap off the printed sleeve. She reaches a cathartic peak in songs like "Riotriot" and "Doorstep," the latter a sorrowful cry about a man's death at the hands of a policeman — "Don't tell me the cops are right in a wrong like this," she pleads. An incongruous and almost overwhelmingly beautiful Phil Spector-derived bridge offsets the chaos that inspired it: the deaths of Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif., and Freddy Villanueva in Montreal, two cities in which Garbus has lived during the tUnE-yArDs project.

She memorably told Scott Pinkmountain — at the online journal The Rumpus — that she wished to make "a punk, feminist version of Thriller" and clarified more recently: "I don't know shit enough to have [my songs] be documentaries; they're my reflections on what I was witnessing from my position as a white chick on the sidelines, trying to figure out what the hell was going on in the cities where I lived."

Her songs are also reflections on herself as she matures. She's occasionally sampled recordings of herself as a child in her recorded work. In her e-mail she reflected on that process: "Kiddo Merrill thinks adult Merrill is a good role model of a cool older lady, which is awesome. And kiddo Merrill would also probably be dancing secretly in the woods to tUnE-yArDs. I'd hope!"

Nathan Phillips is a Detroit-area freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]

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