On Shuffle: tUnE-yArDs – “Powa”

Where single tracks are stripped from their albums, and context is fleeting.

Chicago is OVER, we may roam as we please.

tUnE-yArDs – “Powa”

There once was an era when much, if not most, of my free time was lovingly devoted to the pursuit and subsequent enjoyment of new music. The enjoyment of the worthy find was directly proportional to the amount of time sacrificed to the hunt. During my stint living in Pennsylvania, I probably spent as much time in Baltimore record store Soundgarden as I did visiting my parents’ house, a mere twenty minutes away. These days, I feel lucky if I spend an hour a week poking around online for new music. Maybe it only feels like I spend less time because i don’t have to drive to the record store, and can read about an artist on my phone while I’m eating lunch at work, and then listen to at least a sample of their output on any number of ‘infor-webs’ pages. Or maybe . . . it’s because I live in LA County where we have a lovely little radio station called KCRW. During the morning and evening commutes, which can seem infernal eternal, I listen to NPR programming, which I like. What I love is that every day, for three hours from 9:00 AM until noon, we get “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” It’s like a musical vintage clothing store; they went to the thrift shops already and picked out a bunch of the good stuff. It’s here that my grateful ears were introduced to tUnE-yArDs.

4AD Records is the legendary label that put out the entire Pixies catalog, so I pay attention when they sign a new band. I knew they had signed tUnE-yArDs a couple years ago, re-releasing their first record Birdbrains, but nothing I’d heard from them particularly tickled my fancy. Two weeks ago, all that changed. I was driving during work hours basking in the aural ecstasy of my beloved “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” and was floored by a song that I found out was “Bizness,” the lead single from the latest tUnE-yArDs release, Whokill. I was ready to buy it immediately and came home and looked up whatever I could find by and about them online. I discovered that the band is primarily Merrill Garbus, who leans heavily on relatively simple drum patterns, ukelele riffs, and vocals, looped and stacked several layers thick to create heavily textured soundscapes in pop-length bursts. While her first record was largely an exploration of the sounds she could make, the second record finds her using these skills to approach the pop format from her unique perspective. The main catalyst for the shift in focus between her first and second records is the enlistment of bassist Nate Brenner, who aids immeasurably in composition as well as providing an anchor for her experimental psychedelic leanings with his fluid grooving basslines. The next week I heard their second single, “Gangsta,” and resolved to acquire the album then and there.

While either of the singles is solid enough to warrant its own praise in review, they’re both bouncing groovers with heavy Africana influence. The fourth track, “Powa,” is the first cut on the album that ventures off that trail, creating space for itself to seed and blossom, begging for repeat listens. Her interpretation of a soul-soaked slow-burning bedroom ballad starts with sparse ukulele pick-and-strums, over which Garbus coos in a dreamy falsetto, asking her lover to “wait for her, honey” and “she would never get to sleep.” The intro pauses to stretch out the last strum with wet delay and snaps the ukulele back in over-driven. The bass and drums punctuate the strums while she displays her substantial vocal range, alternating between the limits of her low alto and her silky falsetto. Garbus winds her way to the hook where she oscillates up and down between octaves, claiming her lover’s “powa inside, rocks her like a lullaby.” The second verse is halfway complete when it breaks down except for the bass, falling apart into echoes and whirs while vocals wail in the background, initiating an uphill build where her vocals charge and cartwheel off the top and splinter into three parallel parts that freely flow above it all, like a sonic jetstream of three-fold harmony. They give way to a reprise of the chorus at the end of which, true to R&B form, she lets loose with Prince-like “oo-oo” improvisations that loop up to the extreme high end of her vocal capabilities and sail out on the harmonic jetstream. While “indie-rock soul” is still an approximation of the real thing, this is one of the few songs in the genre of late that have actually given me chills, evoking actual feeling instead of a jaded disaffected “meh.” More of that please, Merrill.

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