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Live review: tUnE-yArDs at the Troubadour

June 27, 2011 | 12:44 pm

For the first song of her encore Saturday night, Merrill Garbus sang the line “I’m not your fantasy girl” from her 2009 debut, “Bird-Brains.” Well, it depends on your fantasy, right? Otherwise known by the typographically challenging nom de plume tUnE-yArDs, Garbus isn’t a melisma-abusing diva or a bedroom-eyed chanteuse or any other known entity in pop music’s high-school cafeteria.

Instead, in magenta ruffled shoulder cuffs and slashes of tribal face paint, Garbus conjures up some sort of shaman from a warrior sect, stalking at the edges, throwing and looping her voice. Her face often contorts into a mask of something near pain when she lets out one of her throaty wails. Her presence is a bit like Björk if you cut the Icelandic singer’s exoticism with more dumpster-diving and all manner of musical free-ganism.

TY’s latest batch of songs (written with Nate Brenner, who was serving on bass Saturday night) from her sophomore effort, “Whokill,” veer between lullaby-quiet and ferociousness, sometimes within the same minute. Liberally jacking from reggae, dub and '50s shoo-wop, tUnE-yArDs' music is a fantasy for anyone who likes tightly constructed but wild things that can prowl and leap into the ear as much as onstage.

Just as often at her sold-out Troubadour show, which was one of her last nights touring in support of “Whokill,” (video of "Bizness," the album's single, included above), she’d break into one of her bright smiles, sweetly testing out a loop on a crowd by asking, “OK to dance to?” But then she'd seem dangerous again, ripping into her rebel yells. For “Gangsta,” she struck her drum and sometimes held her sticks crossbones-style above her head, the horns and looped percussion hitting in four synchronized smacks.

Garbus said the songs, after two months of touring, would be “a little bit tight, a little bit loose,” and it’s that kind of interplay that marks the best of tUnE-yArDs. There’s always a rigor to the music, but it gives way to joyous play, the kind that’s contagious and open to any influence. “Es-so,” with its spoken lines that sound borrowed from a TV script -- “I gotta do right with my body’s type” -- broke down at the end to a rubble of voices, nearly industrial in its tension, like something Throbbing Gristle would do.

“How’s the summer shaping up?” Garbus asked the crowd at one point with the same affability that makes her sound approachable from many angles, and not some impenetrable showcase. The Troubadour crowd wasn’t an easy one to peg, drawing as it did from all sorts of cultural tribes -– straight and gay couples, stylish women dancing and hand-jiving in each other’s faces, one guy jumping up and down in front in two pigtails –- but it’s a refreshing de-categorization that’s reflected in her music too.

“There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand,” Garbus sing-shouts in “Riotriot.” There certainly is when you’re the pop music radical, running amok through the hallowed halls of musical high school, ripping posters off the walls. At one point, she asked the audience to sing a note that became the foundation for the song, a sunshine-drenched revolt. It's as close as Garbus could come to inviting everyone to smoke a cigarette or start a sink fire in the girl’s bathroom.


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-- Margaret Wappler