I’ve been an appalling blogger, which is to say that I haven’t updated in a couple of months. Here’s the first of a few recent review articles. Like most [EDIT: all] of them, it was written for The Music Fix.
Last year’s album, w h o k i l l, brought with it the explosive noise of Merrill Garbus finding her feet as one of the singular and powerful forces of leftfield indie music. With well-developed looping techniques and a devastating voice, the brash left turns peppering her compositions marked an audacious step forward from her debut as tUnE-yArDs.
As if to test her potential impact and the crowd’s receptivity, her first action at the Empire was to sing a single sustained note, which, in its unforeseen simplicity, silenced the noisy crowd at once. It was a wise opening gambit, whose success was demonstrated by the immediate crowd response. The playful, tantalising ebb and flow of the few improvised a cappella phrases which followed that note turned silence to appreciative laughter. Only a few looping seconds of opener ‘Party Can’ later, laughter was replaced by yelling, as each of Garbus’ calls of “do you want to live?” prompted a euphoric “yeah” from most of the standing audience.
The rapid union of artist and audience – and with it the sense that she was preaching to the converted – seemed to increase the frenetic confidence of the show. In a free-spirited but thoroughly musical performance, her precise rhythmic loops contributed to the overriding sense of organised chaos; they were a steadying influence beneath moments of atonal thrash ukulele on ‘Es-so’, and the dense, psychedelic textures adorning the end of ‘Killa’. Despite her feral exclamations and face paint, the temptation to call her pretentious never surfaced – the natural warmth of the set’s eccentricity excused it.
Garbus was augmented by regular bass player Nate Brenner and a pair of dynamic saxophonists, neither of whom was averse to pogoing around the stage while playing, trading a sax for some drumsticks or leaping between styles, from volatile free jazz to precise two part counterpoint. When Brenner interjected with a few lines of lead vocal in the closing ‘My Country’, his own element of surprise – they were the first non-Garbus vocals of the evening – provoked euphoria.
The backing band’s antics were always secondary to the togetherness of the ensemble, which cut an extraordinarily close-knit figure. It was a unity most obvious during the well-rehearsed breakdown of ‘Gangsta’, where the instrumental beats, though irregular and far between, were consistently fired out in perfect time. The one time a complex construction came crashing down was on b-side ‘Youth’, where Garbus shrugged off an early hiccup with an assured recovery and a smile.
What was most thrilling here was that her creativity seemed unbounded. The one new song was built around the night’s most rhythmically irregular loop, with a sliding a cappella midsection which implied a Björkish fascination with testing the limits of the human voice. Garbus noted that this might have been her biggest headline show yet, and with exciting mutations like these coming to the fore, her next steps may well deserve to expand the cult.
This video was recorded a couple of nights earlier, but it’s one of the best from the tour.