After the incredible success of tUnE-yArDs’ 2011 masterpiece, w h o k i l l — a critical darling that earned the No. 1 spot on the Village Voice’s annual Pazz and Jop poll — it was hard to imagine where Merril Garbus would go next. Turns out, Garbus, the powerful voice and mastermind of the one-woman-band-turned actual band, wasn’t sure, either. For a musician and producer as inventive with sound and wordplay as she is, Garbus says she’s always had at least some music she was workshopping or planning to record. But after some time off, there was little left on the shelf, and in order to restock, she realized she had to challenge herself.
To watch Garbus play on stage — as she constructed each drum hit into a danceable polyrhythmic groove and each vocal line into textured harmony with the help of live looping pedals — was to catch a glimpse of what it’s probably like when she writes new material. But this time, she wanted to stretch beyond that by going into the studio five days a week and trying to craft two demos a day.
“I also had rules,” she explained, “This week I’m only going to write using drum machines’; ‘This week I’m going to write using vocal melodies first, and build something around that.’ At the end of that, I had about 30 demos.”
Those demos eventually became the backbone of tUnE-yArDs’ superb third album, Nikki Nack — which features work from producers John Hill (Rihanna, M.I.A.) and Malay (Frank Ocean, Alicia Keys, Big Boi).
At the center of the record is “Water Fountain,” another trademark no-holds-barred song propelled by a rubbery bass groove from Nate Brenner, Garbus’ clacking, room-shaking polyrhythms and infectious chorus of singers. The dense yet playful song is emblematic of Garbus’ new sonic direction found all throughout Nikki Nack— check out those bit-crunched digital artifacts and incredible percussives skittering around the headphones. tUnE-yArDs’ music is undeniably fun, buoyant, and even more explosive in concert.
Where Garbus’ w h o k i l l band was comprised of herself, Brenner and two saxophonists doubling as percussionists, this new iteration triple downs on the rhythm and the voices: There’s another female percussionist and singer who bangs away at an impressive battery of drums and electronic pads, and two additional female singers, who also dance with moves equally choreographed and improvised, tribal and modern. That layered chorus of voices added so much complexity and inventiveness to these songs — it was gorgeous and soulful to hear, and joyful to watch them flail and glide around the stage.
And that visual component is also a large part of the the experience: Across the stage, there’s little Pee-Wee-inspired monster creatures from the “Water Fountain” video affixed to the instrument stands — and cartoony eyeballs as part of a flowy backdrop. And of course, everyone in the band wore brightly colored fluorescent clothing and wild tribal face paint that illuminated with a DayGlo sheen under the bright lights and black lights. To watch tUnE-yArDs perform is like being transported into a Saturday morning cartoon funhouse (er, Playhouse?) full of fun danceable grooves and killer melodies you want to shake and sing along to.
But obviously, there’s more depth to this music than meets the eye: Merrill Garbus is one of the most inspiring figures in music right now — with an uncanny ability to craft songs equally full of joy and anger. And as she sings about global inequality, gender politics, and economic and cultural struggles in her distinctively unrestrained voice, her songs carry extra power. As always, Garbus is an adventurous musician, a playful front-woman and a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her force of nature. This music feels completely of this moment and beyond. Not only is Nikki Nack is among the year’s best records, but tUnE-yArDs’ put on one of the best live shows of the year so far.
The best collaborations bring a push and pull that forces each member out of their comfort zones, and charts new territory they may not have ventured by themselves. Case in point: Sylvan Esso, the new project from singer Amelia Meath, of the mostly a cappella Vermont folk trio Mountain Man, and Nick Sanborn, of the North Carolina rock band Megafaun. Unlike those more guitar-based, acoustic-leaning groups, Sylvan Esso takes a stylistic leap, veering a hard left toward minimal electronic music and taut synth pop. And with their superb self-titled record, Meath and Sanborn perfectly encapsulate that creative spirit of collaboration, equally showcasing their individual talents, and creating a synthesis of their group’s respective sounds in a new way.
With tracks like “Uncanta,” and the album’s best single, “Coffee,” Sylvan Esso best demonstrates its alluring and spare sound: Meath singing amid Sanborn’s woozy hooks, chiming synth sequences and laptop beats. Elsewhere, in “Hey Mami” or “Come Down,” Meath begins with her seductive, unadorned voice, before unfurling layers harmonies as stirring and shimmering noises begin to percolate around the periphery. And in “Wolf” and “Play It Right” (a song Mountain Man has performed a capella), the throbbing synths and clattering percussion gets heavier, darker and dancier.
With a practically fully-formed sound out of the box, Sylvan Esso has made one of the year’s best pop debuts so far. But it also captures an exciting and fruitful pairing still discovering what it wants to become — and with endless potential to grow.
As Taylor Swift leaps full on into pop, there’s been something of a sea change burbling in country music’s undercard in 2014, with many artists shifting outside the polished commercial country machine and creating their best music yet. Take Jessica Lea Mayfield, who tosses out her wistful alt-country for smoldering, grunge bangers on Make My Head Sing… Or Hurray For The Riff Raff, which on “The Body Electric” reinvents the classic murder ballad with a clever feminist critique. Or, Sturgill Simpson, whose remarkable Metamodern Sounds In Country Music blends a traditional twangy croon with existential cosmic ruminations and mind-altering drugs.
Similarly, Lydia Loveless brings a punky edge and an emotionally charged candor to country music with her fantastic album, Somewhere Else. Within her rowdy, countrified rockers, the young Columbus, Ohio singer-guitarist writes about many of her self-destructive tendencies — from drunkenly calling up an ex to break up his marriage (“Really Wanna See You”), to bleary-eyed late night stewing over past lovers (“Head” ), to referencing and relating to doomed 19th-century French poets (“Verlaine Shot Rimbaud”). As romantically stormy and sexually frank as Loveless can be, her lyrics never feel overly sensationalistic. Instead, Somewhere Else presents a bold songwriter willing to scratch at her flaws and regrets, and allow herself to look bad. It’s all the more relatable and potent for it.
On Sunday, Jan. 13, New York City’s Webster Hall was overtaken by 12 diverse musical acts from all over the world as part of globalFEST 2013. While I only recognized a small handful of names on the bill, the setup at globalFEST is perfect for wandering from stage-to-stage and sampling little tastes of bands without worrying about missing too much. And that’s exciting — it was a night of pure discovery.
The evening had a lot of memorable moments (NPR Music was there filming a whole slew of sets from the night, well worth checking out), but few as instantly winning as Mucca Pazza, a 30-piece Bizarro World circus of musicians and weirdo hipster cheerleaders, all decked out in colorfully clashing retro marching band uniforms. The Chicago-based group — which gets its name from the Italian phrase for “crazy cow” (also a name for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease) — has been banging around for years, but this was my first exposure to its visual and musical mayhem. It was a total blast.
Seeing this irresistible band of horns and violins, guitars and accordion all parade in and eventually take the stage is infectious, chaotic fun. But it’s also an incredibly coordinated and choreographed performance full of cheers and bursting with energy that is easy to get caught up in.
Typically my musical tastes default to introspective, darker music full of layers of noise and distortion and all of that. Yet watching Mucca Pazza reminded me of many similarly giant, celebratory acts I’ve seen over the years: The Flaming Lips and its confetti canons and furry animal costumes; Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ sprawling community singalongs; the gypsy punk anarchy of Gogol Bordello; and the roving What Cheer? Brigade who’s enlivened the grounds at the Newport Folk Festival with funked-up renditions of TV theme songs.
Mucca Pazza also brought to mind two big dance-friendly, smile-inducing bands that have won over crowds at globalFEST in previous years: The Ethiopian funk rock of Debo Band and the “Brooklyn Bhangra” group Red Baraat. And of course, all of these acts share some DNA with both traditional and modern genre-blending New Orleans brass bands that have been playing “forget about your worries and dance” music since, like, forever.
You can see and hear all of that in Mucca Pazza’s music. Yet what stood out the most was not only the feel-good aesthetic of Mucca Pazza’s live show, but how outright wackadoodle and entertaining it could be. If only my high school marching band was this crazy and fun.
Check out some other photos from the night: