In her experimental pop group tUnE-yArDs, Merrill Garbus makes arty music out of primal materials. Songs are built on wordless yelps, or playground jump-rope melodies. Arrangements are often just a bunch of drums with a touch of bass and harmony.
Musicians have always tried to pull unmediated, unself-conscious emotions out of their crowd (that’s the whole point of pop music, isn’t it?). But it takes a supremely confident artist to jump in that pool first, and make music out of her own sense of abandon. Garbus and her gang of Oakland misfits did exactly that at a sold-out Fonda Theatre on Thursday night.
There are a lot of things about tUnE-yArDs that are meant to be kind of obnoxious. The stylization of the band name, for one, makes a 2006
MySpace comments section look like the Associated Press style guide. Garbus’ aesthetic has a willful naivety and enthusiasm that can sometimes feel grating (there’s a frequent ukulele, for starters).
Don’t stop there, though. It takes a live set from the group to really understand how much craft goes into sounding this unhinged.
Dressed in a red and gold space-prom dress that would make Ziggy Stardust proud, Garbus and her backing band opened with “Hey Life,” a singsongy warm-up chant that’s sneakily existential.
While fans bopped to the call-and-response of her backing vocalists shouting “Five, six, seven, heaven,” Garbus wondered -- “I woke up like a heartbeat with a panic attack… Hey life, why do you keep me around?”
That was the spoonful of medicine that made all of tUnE-yArDs’ pop sugar go down.
Garbus used similar sweet-and-salty moves throughout her set. “Sink-O” was a purposefully over-caffeinated rave-up where, in between shouts of “Peace! Peace and love!” Garbus undercut that goofy mood with lyrics like “Cannot sleep, but cannot face the day.”
On “Real Thing,” a centerpiece of her new album, “Nikki Nack,” she got viciously self-critical, both of her art and of her identity. “They say I’m the real thing, I sound like the real thing, sing it real loud like the real thing,” she sang, really loudly.
Then came a chorus hook as dumbly catchy as the "Monday Night Football" intro music, but laced with sarcasm about American idiocy: “I come from the land of slaves / Let’s go Redskins, let’s go Braves.”
That moment proved there’s a moral heart underneath all this gum-smacking art-pop. Garbus took lessons in Haitian drumming to broaden her sound on “Nikki Nack.” It’s no stroke of genius for pop artists from the First World to look to the Third for authenticity. But there was a generosity and genuineness in tUnE-yArDs’ pop adventures that kept Garbus from feeling touristy.
When the band played “Bizness,” one of its calling-card tunes, the whole Fonda crowd chimed in for the chant “Don’t take my life away, don’t take my life away.” It sounded like Garbus really meant it, that’s there’s just too much out there to see, and she doesn’t want to leave this place quite yet.
Not wanting to die -- now there’s a primal emotion worth making art about.