“Oulipo” is a term used to describe a collective of French authors, poets, artists, and mathematicians who use self-prescribed limitations to produce works of art within confining limitations. For example, authors will replace every noun in a piece with a noun seven entries later in a dictionary, or will write a story without using the letter E. These experiments in restriction allow the artists to seek new ways to express themselves without using familiar tropes or the limitless resources of words, phrases, and shapes.

While not exactly trying out to be on team Oulipo, an introduction to tUnE-yArDs latest offering “BiRd-BrAiNs” can’t be mentioned without bringing up her rather unique way of recording. “BiRd-BrAiNs” was Recorded exclusively on a Sony digital voice recorder and then mixed using the free shareware Audacity. tUnE-yArDs’ self-imposed D.I.Y poverty wraps each song in a sort of aural lucidity that is lacking from even the most reverb drenched Lo-Fi experimentalists. While these limitations in recording fidelity have unintended side-effects such as auditory clipping of vocal tracks and a tin-like sounding percussion, however, what the listener hears is Merrils true merits rising through the din devoid of any studio trickery.
While all retaining the same approach, tUnE-yArDs compositions vary greatly from track to track. Most songs are composed around a ukulele, a handful of cheap percussion, vocal loops, rummage sale selection of found sounds, and most importantly that voice. That voice. One minute she is cooing like Joni Mitchell and the next she is roaring like Kim Gordan. Garbus’s husky croon bounces from the70’s singer-songwriter chantreuse crooning of “Sunlight”, to the reggae influenced scatting on “Jamaica”, to straight up hip hop in “Jumping Jack”.

While the album itself is incredibly solid, there are really two un-missable tracks. The first proper song “Sunlight” is a show-stopper. Starting with possibly the most straight forward vocal track on the album, she plods through some heavy percussion and a wicked bass line while crooning “I could be the sunlight in your eyes, couldn’t I?”. By two minutes a ukulele and some clamoring guitars have joined the mix and a sampled vocal loop enters the fray. By 2:30 her voice has gone from Joan Baez to a mix between Riot-Grrrl era Sleater-Kinney meets Menomena’s Brent Knopfs baritone howl. “Hatari” is the obvious go-to in order to showcase Garbus’s range, starting off with a Juana Molina like vocal loop sampling, the tracks switches its tempo and vocal juxtaposition as jagged Ukulele riffs bob and weave through Our Brother the Native meets Pharoe Sanders like call and response shouting/babbling. The noise is overwhelming until she just kills it with her unaccompanied baritone howls “Oh will you hear the sound/10,000 voices lost and found”.

As it stands Tune Yards finds her home comfortably with outsider pop phenomenons Kurt Weisman, Bird Names, and Sister Suvi (which she is 1/3 of), as well as found sound collage artists the Books. Much like the French “Oulipo” collective who practice constrained writing and self imposed limitations, Tune Yards uses her chosen lo-fi approach to force her big ideas to the surface instead of swimming in a never ending sea of loose ends and possibilities. The self prescribed limitations give context to moments of unspeakable beauty, such as in “Hatari”, when all percussion and vocal loops stop cold in their tracks and Garbus’s un-accompanied voice in her half-warble/half-war cry forces out the lines, “there is a natural sound that wild things make when they’re bound”. It is only with these limitations that the wild thing in Garbus can be unleashed, face paint, feathers and all.

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