BY MIKE WALSH MUSIC CRITIC The first time I heard a tUnE-yArDs song, I wondered how Merrill Garbus, the singer and songwriter who essentially is the band, could perform such a unique style in a live setting. With the many layers of her voice and sounds on her CD whokill, I assumed she’d need a large band with backing singers to pull it off. But I was wrong about that, as I discovered on Sunday night at Union Transfer. Garbus uses live looping techniques so expertly, she made her and her bass player sound like an orchestra. When the two sax players joined in, they created a joyous wall of sound.

Of course, looping is not new. Many musicians play pre-recorded loops live, and I’ve seen musicians create simple loops live. But I’ve never seen or heard live looping as ambitious or performed as seamlessly as what Garbus did on Sunday night. Garbus records multi-tracks live, adding sounds on top of sounds in her loops. She may have an entire chorus of loops going, combining it with live performing. Garbus starts and stop loops, adds to them, and abandons then mid-song, all the while playing electric ukulele and singing her ass off. Coupled with Garbus’s amazingly strong and varied vocals, and the ménage of genres that her music encompasses, this concert was a real treat.

Standing in front of a couple of drums, Garbus started most songs by creating a simple drum pattern, recording it with a separate mic and controlling the recording devices with foot pedals. And this was not conventional drumming — these were heavy tribal rhythms she pounds out on a floor tom and snare miked for a big sound. Within a measure or two, she’d add extra drum parts, moving the mic close to whatever she was recording and controlling the recording devices with foot pedals. Then she might record drum flourishes played by her songwriting partner, Nate Brenner, who played bass when he wasn’t making loops, and she had the rhythm that she’d use through the song. Then she’d get to looping her vocals, recording a several part vocal, all while the looped rhythms were playing. By the crescendo of a piece, there might be four or five of her voices accompanying her live voice. Once she got those loops going, she’d pick up the ukulele and join in, attacking what would normally be the rhythm guitar part.

All this loop recording takes place within a minute or two, and if you weren’t paying attention you might not even notice. It’s not like she had her face inches from a laptop and produced some kind of techno vibe. Garbus sings, plays, and pounds, only momentarily pointing a mic at some instrument to create a loop, all within the context of songs that are anything but techno. Garbus did this almost casually, with no self-consciousness, as if live multi-track recording during a song in front of hundreds of admirers were routine.

If you’re familiar with tUnE-yArDs, you know that Garbus has a big voice and is remarkably creative with it. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to tune_yards_Merrill_rhino_600x600.jpgsay that Garbus has multiple voices–a soft wisp, a yodel, a growl, soulful vamping, and full-on roaring, and she switches between these voices effortlessly, often from one word to the next. tUnE-yArDs is a master of contrasts and dynamics as well, shifting between a full-out onslaught to soft sections on a dime. The resulting sound is almost impossible to describe, melding Afro-pop, soul, rock, hip-hop, chanting, and jazz. The band reproduced most of whokill, the tUnE-yArDs latest release, with joy and energy. “My Country,” “Gangsta,” “Powa,” and “Bizness” were the big crowd-pleasers, but I was giddy with it all.

Garbus apparently developed her style at home while recording her first CD, Bird-Brains, for which she allegedly used nothing more than recycled cassettes, a hand-held voice recorder, a laptop, and free mixing software. But despite the limited tools and an initial release as a free download, that recording earned her a contract with 4AD, who re-issued Bird-Brains on CD.

Garbus wisely keeps the arrangements and the delivery of her music simple. She doesn’t let clutter muddy the mix. For example, the drum kit consisted of just a few pieces, with no cymbals, which made those drums all the more distinct. They had just one very small synthesizer and used just a few synthesized sounds for accents. Garbus also didn’t vary the sound of the ukulele with a bank of effects. One straight sound was all she needed to derive plenty of diversity from just four strings. And as complex as some of her rhythms might be, she doesn’t vary those rhythms much through her songs, which makes the looping simpler and more manageable.

Garbus seemed thrilled to be playing the Union Transfer and stated that it was the largest crowd of their tour. She seemed surprised that so many people, about 400, came to see her. Opening acts Les Blondettes (from France, none of whom are blonde) and Pat Jordache (from Montreal) also delivered unique sounds, with counter-rhythms and unconventional vocal and guitar/ukulele styles the common thread of the evening. The inventiveness and creativity of each of the bands grew on me through their sets as their styles became more familiar. At no time during the 80-minute tUnE-yArDs set did Garbus seem aware that her live looping approach was unusual or unique. This is technology she uses out of necessity but developed into an integral part of her show, as if it were another instrument. The results seemed perfectly natural to the appreciative audience as well. The novelty of tUnE-yArDs’ music needed no explanation or justification on Sunday night. Merrill Garbus’ music creates its own logic.

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