Better late than never: tUnE-yArDs and Beach House

Despite the aims of this blog, there exists an impossibility: I can’t keep up with everything that goes on in popular music. I try to winnow down the aggregate by focusing on women and girls (and sometimes some relevant men and boys, but usually in the periphery). But some things get lost in the proverbial mix. Tonight I thought I’d focus on two artists I’m starting to get into, thanks to my neighbor David and Kristen at Act Your Age.

First up, tUnE-yArDs. When I saw the cover for BiRd-BrAiNs, I dismissed the act out of hand. Surely this is some kind of indie white boy band who is too in love with their sense own irony. Maybe they do dance music, but in quotes. Ho hum. I dance for real.

But actually, Merrill Garbus is the woman behind a solo project called tUnE-yArDs and specifically picked the name to be annoying. You can listen to old fogey rock critic Greil Marcus espouse his opinions on her work here. You can also play the clip below, which shows the singer performing “Hatari.”

I have some thoughts of my own. I think it’s interesting that Garbus is being lumped in with a spate of new artists who embrace lo-fi (note: a lot of people approach the term as a subgenre; I think of it more as a recording philosophy that eschews state-of-the-art technology for outdated, often analog equipment and favors using domestic spaces to double as studios).

But, I have trouble with a white woman weaving African music (specifically from Kenya and the Congo) into her sound after studying abroad during college. I don’t know much about the Garbus family’s social standing, but there’s definitely the risk of world music’s cultural poaching here. Some folks, like my partner, might find her race more troubling when hearing her voice, which seems to betray both her race and age. I feel a bit weird about it too, but I also like the richness of her tonal quality. This might help me come around to the prospect of a live puppet show, which I’m also on the fence about. The grooves and her ear for unexpected melodies along with intersting harmonic and rhythmic shifts help. I’d like to see her in a live setting to see how all of this comes together. SXSW?

Also: Beach House. Man, have people talked them up. Dudes, mainly — some of whom seemed a little too preoccupied with vocalist Victoria Legrand’s Nico-esque vocals, making The Velvet Underground’s influence a bit too obvious. So I’ve more or less avoided them, confident that they aren’t going anywhere and I’ll get to them eventually. That said, I do really love the music video for “Master of None” off their self-titled debut, and like the song as well.

Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand of Beach House; image courtesy of opbmusic.org

Their third release, Teen Dream, comes out next week. Kristen gave it a thumbs-up, which was enough for me. As Michael Katzif points out, the new album has a lighter, dreamier sound. At times, the album reminds me of Kate Bush and 80s-era Fleetwood Mac (“Norway” boasts a guitar line that sounds quite a bit like “Gypsy”). I’ve taken for granted the number of times Beach House have made it down to Austin. I hope I get to check them out real soon.

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3 comments

  1. c8ic8

    Thanks for posting on this–I absolutely love tUnE-yArDs (just downloaded it a couple of days ago) but was not aware of the African inspiration in the music. In fact, nothing I’ve read has even mentioned it. This is troubling, considering that the artist benefits from the influence but with little credit given to the originators of the sound.

    While I think western artists drawing from world music is inherently troubling, I do think that it can be less so when the artist encourages audiences to check out their influences. This can bring attention to under-exposed artists, but you’re definitely right to raise this concern regardless.

  2. Pingback: SWSYes! « Feminist Music Geek
  3. Pingback: SWSYes! « Feminist Music Geek

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