She wore a gash of periwinkle war paint on her face at the Red Palace on H St. N.E. Thursday night, but Merrill Garbus came to make peace.
The 32-year-old singer, better known as Tune-Yards, is responsible for one of the most arresting recordings of 2011 – the much-ballyhooed “whokill” – an album dizzy with melodic tangles and polyrhythmic butterflies. But on stage, her prickly puzzle-songs were deflated with carefree smiles and lockstep whimsy. It felt like children’s music for graduate students. Or like ten different versions of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” for indie people. It felt cute.
And Garbus is at her best when she’s the opposite of cute. A bold and inventive vocalist, she flashed her brilliance like snarling teeth during “Gangsta,” a smart, fiery tune about the fault lines that divide music and race. “What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a gangsta?” she sang. “Anger in his heart but he’ll never be a gangsta.”
In the background, an entire choir of Garbuses yodeled from phantom mountaintops. The voices were pre-recorded, but only moments before. That’s because, on stage, each Tune-Yards song starts with Garbus building her backing tracks from scratch. With a drumstick in one hand, she would often tap out a minimal, boom-clack beat on a floor tom.
With a microphone in the other, she’d record it and loop it into a pattern that would guide the next four minutes. Then came the vocals – chirps, coos and yodel-ay-ee-hoos, each draped over one another layer by layer. Then she’d add some ukulele riffs, some good old-fashioned verses and choruses, and her band — a bassist and two saxophonists — would join in. (So when she echoed the Talking Heads – an unmistakable influence — by singing, “How did I get here?” her audience knew the answer.)
Fans examined all of this very, very closely. “For a sold out crowd you’re incredibly quiet,” Garbus noted between songs. “It’s not a bad thing. You know I’m working incredibly hard up here.”
Sometimes those track-building sessions created a sense of anticipation, but by the set’s end, they did actually start to look like work. And they made Garbus’s approach feel formulaic. Once many of these tunes, including “Do You Wanna Live” and “You Yes You,” were up and running, they quickly drifted off into breezy, forgettable terrains.
“Bizness” was a spectacular exception – a song that snapped the evening into focus with Garbus pleading for her existence. “Don’t take my life away!” she chanted during the refrain, a cascading afro-beat-ish horn line trailing behind her. Along with her voice, which toggled between punky growls and Philip Glass-inspired purling, that sense of urgency is Garbus’s greatest strength.
And the more times you loop it, the more her voice demands it.