April 6, 2009

tUnE-yArDs – BiRd-BrAiNs

Marriage; 2009

The supremely DIY effort that is BiRd-BrAiNs should stand as a testament to all that is pure and holy in music. Recorded by one Merrill Garbus over the course of two-and-a-half years on a hand-held voice recorder, these eleven songs find freak-folk vocal warblings pared with electronic beats (that are often quite minimalist and not too shabby in construction), all while being led by a ukulele that’s plucking and/or strumming some fairly typical chord progressions. Alongside all of this, whether introducing or concluding a track, Garbus has placed snippets of conversations and events from her time as a nanny, producing a result that is akin to sneaking into her room to read her journal – it’s very personal and private, but you can tell that she left it out on her desk for you to find.

There is much to be admired with BiRd-BrAiNs, from the quirky animal-related lyrical material (an affinity that Garbus shares with Neko Case) to the easy, breezy arrangements of these songs (though I prefer the sparse, bluesy electric guitar riffs to the ukulele stuff). My friend Bob goes as far as to state that he feels that this music would make an excellent contribution to the children’s music market. While I hear what he’s attempting to say, we run into my primary quibble with this blissfully eccentric record, as I think it’s a bit too far outside-the-box to find wide appeal.

The concern I have rests in a tension I don’t feel has a decent resolution. While some will rightly extol the lo-fi production techniques, others will totally dig on the quirky instrumentation and singsong nursery rhyme vocals, but I’m not sure those two camps would find much common ground. One part of me would love to hear these songs re-recorded in a decent studio to clear away the fuzz so as to re-introduce them as truly kid-friendly (as well as friendly to parents longing for decent music they can enjoy with their children). The other half of me applauds Garbus for remaining true to her roots, while longing for her to further push into more serious folk-pop territory.

Maybe I’m exposing my predilection for a more focused product than the one I find here, but I also could be grasping at something that doesn’t actually exist. I certainly do like what I hear with this music, but something feels a bit missing at times. In the end, I think I’ll just assume that the problems I have with BiRd-BrAiNs are solely mine, as the last thing I would want to do is discourage this obviously talented woman in her music-making pursuits.

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