A quick glance at the orthography tells you that Merrill Garbus insists on doing things her own way, and a quick listen tells you that she has the talent to back it up. Sort of a Millenial Rickie Lee Jones, or a rhythm-oriented Sufjan Stevens if he were good as his press clippings suggest: Garbus crafts weird but winning lo-fi folk/hip hop using little but drum loops, a bewildering array of vocal approaches, and ukelele. She somehow manages to sound more outré than most "experimental" music, while coming off more natural and relatable than most "mainstream" music. Plus, Garbus may be the first US singer I've heard who can incorporate Afro-pop influences rather than just biting them - no, Vampire Weekend doesn't count.
I've also reviewed Garbus's pre-tUnE-yArDs project, Sister Suvi, although I don't actually recommend looking into it. I suspect Garbus is one of those Joe Jackson-type reluctant stars who will intentionally discard her audience on a regular basis, like a reptile shedding its skin, so get a load of her while she's in a fairly accessible phase.
Sister Suvi - Patrick Gregoire, vocals, guitar; Merrill Garbus, vocals and ukelele; Nico Dann, drums.
tUnE-yArDs - Merrill Garbus, vocals, ukelele, drums; Nate Brenner, bass.
Now I Am Champion (Sister Suvi: 2009)
The first and, I believe, only release from the Montreal-based trio Garbus was briefly associated with. Singer/guitarist Patrick Gregoire fronts most of the tunes; he has a few different approaches, from David Byrne-ish uptight nerdiness ("Deadwood") to ramshackle raveups ("The Lot") to emo confession ("Longlegs"), but his indie mopiness and rote compositions pop any balloon that may be on the verge of inflating. Only a couple of tunes seem like true collaborations between him and Garbus, and they're similarly monotonous ("Desolation"; the lullaby "Agua"). While drummer Nico Dann provides flexible, reflective backing ("Claymation"), he never seizes the spotlight even when some showmanship is sorely needed ("Agua"). So the best songs are the two where Gregroire gets out of the way and lets Garbus set up a spare, repetitive backdrop over which she can unleash her wild, unpredictable vocalizing: "American" and "Champion." This is, of course, precisely the direction she would soon go with tUnE-yArDs, to which you should immediately proceed. (DBW)
BiRd-BrAiNs (tUnE-yArDs: 2009)
tUnE-yArDs also put out a 2010 single; "Real Live Flesh" (also added to some BiRd-BrAiNs configurations) is decent; the B-side "Youth" is indispensable. (DBW)
w h o k i l l (tUnE-yArDs: 2011)
Nikki Nack (tUnE-yArDs: 2014)
I cannot take it, I'm so hip.