I discovered tUnE-yArDs on an end-of-the-year Pitchfork list following 2011. I haven’t been so much IN LOVE since then — that’s not the right term — more like, I pi** people off even more than I used to by walking through rooms calmly and actually being capable of carrying conversations.
Nikki Nack, I thought, was sort of a sophomore slump (even though it was her third album I still thought it a sophomore slump, how’s that for journalistic liberty), but it was an understandable one, especially when you consider what it would be like dealing with the New York public on the heels of a minor indie music groundbreaking. It was much deserved too — w h o k i l l was a document of bleeding classic rock which above all was relentlessly rhythmic. It was filled with blood and life, anthemic but delicate.
Anyway, for some reason, through all my exploits of listening to w h o k i l l, noticing the sporadically placed standouts (“Powa”; “Doorstep”; “Wooly Wooly Gong”) and then being sort of jarred back into reality by the boisterous closeur, one sort of obvious but still subtle detail always for some reason fell short of my sharper consciousness — the penchant Merill Garbus has for just singing, the quality of her voice. Sadly, opener “Heart Attack” on I can feel you creep into my private life seems like more or less just an exercise of just that voice — like she’s cracking her knuckles, or wearing ankle-bearing pants to show off exceptionally nice ankles. The theme of this album is clear, obviously, and it surfaces thematically right away in “Heart Attack” (she’s saying things like “Let me breathe”, et. al., as if she’s trying to combat a large, voyeuristic public). At times, then, “Heart Attack” combusts noticeably into a fun sort of groove, but the chorus and general refrain fall markedly short of genius, and personally I have a pet peeve of when people overuse the word “soul” (or when they use it at all), which Garbus definitely does here on this opener. Even on “Our Singer” when Stephen Malkmus says it, it’s like he hates the word but he’s saying it anyway. It’s sort of an artistic dead end. I’m not sure what Garbus is trying to accomplish on “Heart Attack,” but it’s definitely not the endeavor of expanding the realm of indie rock, plotting down these perfunctory little four-minute songs in every bit the style she used on former work.
Thankfully, by the time track two “Coast to Coast” treks in, Garbus has relinquished the objective entirely of a concept album, and we’re glad she did. I’m not sure what exact position “Coast to Coast” will occupy in our culture, whether we’re hear it in grocery stores (probably not, with its lengthy, ambient pause of fuzz halfway through), whether we’ll hear it at stoner parties (it might be too poppy for that), but it’s definitely going to get a lot of clicks from ME, the work of a pop musician who certainly sounds seasoned, nay, drenched, with life experience here. The best part of “Coast to Coast” might be, though, even still, the universal, big-picture status of the lyrics: rather than brooding on details, they repaint America as a giant, sort of live malady, the result of which is a refreshing departure from THEMES and entrance into an actual, bona fide vision, at the DNA’s core of which music flexes its cultural muscle.
“ABC 123” and “Now as Then” march in, then, each offering their own little nugget of hook and catharsis, one noticeable thing Garbus is doing here being an ironic claim of “white centrality” [she says this is “All (she) knows”]. Now, for a second I thought it was like some nauseating assent to the general, insipid paradigmatic sucking-up-to of black people we see in our culture nowadays. But a further listen reveals that it is actually sarcasm. For instance, when I mulled back over “ABC 123” I noticed the lyric “My skin boils red in scabs and stings”. Ouch!
Also, look at that song title. Garbus knows that she will be hated for this album. It’s really good. It would have been really good even if she’d been sucking up to “Black Lives Matter,” like she’d just made that shocking discovery. But it’s full of black influence. You can hear the “soul” (uck) of Aretha Franklin on the second half of “Now as Then,” like a deep, sanctimonious fusion of Motown and jazz, and by this time the idea is clear: Garbus has chosen to “do black music so selfishly”, just like Eminem.
But she’s got the accent to pull this stuff off and Christ she’s just ENDEARING, even in the a capella sections, and even though I could scientifically plot down all of the influences here, I could tell you which unorthodoxies work and which are just disguised as unorthodoxies, the real reason I will go back and listen to I can feel you creep into my private life is that god da** it’s just COOL. She just sounds cool doing it. And that is refreshing.