Short of whittling one’s own instruments out of homegrown spruce and staging impromptu door-to-door performances, it would be difficult to imagine a more DIY-spirited outfit circa 2009 than tUnE-YaRdS. The solo home-recording project of Merrill Garbus (the lone Yankee member of the otherwise Canadian trio Sister Suvi), her debut album BiRd-BrAiNs was crafted over the course of two years using a Sony digital voice recorder and the free online sound-editing program Audacity before being digitally distributed throughout 2008 and early 2009 via an In Rainbows-style pay-what-you-want donation program (it was then released physically on vinyl from Portland-based Marriage Records earlier this year). Far from being the sparse recording that might be expected from such a bare-bones approach, though, the album is busy with clattering percussion and incidental noises and voices. For the sake of added perversity, the guitar sound serving as Garbus’ main instrumental accompaniment is actually a ukulele.
Garbus has at least one powerful instrument available in the form of her own voice, a possibly deranged intensity that will call to mind, depending on where you are standing, anyone from Jean Smith to Alanis Morissette to Amanda Palmer. Never in repose, her vocals constantly jerk effortlessly between gentle trills, ominous moans and enraged snarls, contributing greatly to the music’s pervasive sense of unease. This is especially startling on the moments — and there are more than a few of them — when the songs take sharp turns from the (relatively) conventional to the outright hysterical and disturbing.
“Lions” clips along like a nursery rhyme (“When you tell the lions that you love them so” goes its sing-songy chorus) before exploding into a gnashing fury (“We can pretend it’s Christmas while we’re locked here in this box / While my brother and all his friends whip out their tiny teenage cocks”, she finally snaps). “News” is cheerful and spry, detouring at one brief point in an unexpected Andrews Sisters-style harmonic shuffle, but it hides an unavoidably abusive-relationship narrative that eventually veers into the surreal (“I’ve got news for you honey / I get pregnant with birds who sing prettier than you”). “Jamaican” is growlingly cartoonish, a little like a Disney villain’s theme song, until Garbus spins into a particularly manic version of rapping. “Jumping Jack” is delivered like a playground taunt (“Jumping jack / Jumping jack / Tell me why you are so whack”) interspersed with wordless howls.
For all of BiRd-BrAiNs‘ quick sonic and melodic digressions, along with Garbus’ tendency to be vocally abrasive and erratically tempered more often than not, most listeners will still find that the primary obstacle to enjoying this record begins and ends with the method of its recording. As the voice recorder is not at all kind to depth or nuance, the effect is often of the music, and especially the vocals, straining against their noticeably limited confines. Its not that there is no texture to the recordings, its that the album is all texture; every plucked string, dynamic shift in the vocals and sudden burst of tape hiss feels as if it is practically brushing against your skin. The result is a particularly difficult tension between Garbus and her lo-fi trappings — where the vast majority of lo-fi acts remain comfortable to wade in the audio murk, as if it were just one more tool at their disposal, Garbus claws violently against it.
If there is any grand purpose to BiRd-BrAiNs, though, it lies not in transcending its own limitations, but rather in living, however claustrophobically, within them. “What if my own skin makes my skin crawl?” Garbus asks near the end of the record (on the yearning, anthemic “Fiya”), and it winds up being the key line of text for decoding everything else here. BiRd-BrAiNs is about that feeling of discomfort within one’s own skin, yes, but more crucially, it is about Garbus’ distrust of her own creations, the unstable relationship between the artist and his or her own naggingly imperfect art. That it so frequently manages to be as engaging as it is eccentric should hopefully soothe some of Garbus’ insecurities.