For the life of me, I can't recall what I was doing in Montreal in the summer of 2009, or what show I had originally gone out to Casa del Popolo for, but I sure as hell remember having my hair blown back by this woman with a drum or two, a ukelele, a loop pedal, and this huge, weird, versatile voice. I bought the cassette she had for sale (don't worry, guys: it had a digital download code with it) and listened to it all seven hours driving home the next day.
That first tUnE-yArDs's album, BiRd-BrAiNs was recorded mostly on a dictation machine and, sonically, may not be for everybody and so may take a little while to be your favourite album. But for those with a predisposition to a certain amount of lo-fi scruffiness, you can go to the front of the line. While the heartiest tracks sound like African-influenced summer camp chants, there are enough moments of torchy fragility that listeners put off by the bolder, more cacophonous elements have something sturdy to grasp onto initially. The gusto of the live show isn't on full display, but there's enough yodeling, screaming, and beating to give you a good idea of what the ensuing stink that was made about Merrill Garbus's infuriatingly-lettered tUnE-yArDs was all about.
2011's w h o k i l l goes a little way to clean some of the dirt off the sound, but what grime remains is there by choice, not necessity. A rampant interest in violence thrums beneath tracks that ups some of the funkier inclinations in BiRd-BrAiNs. Addition of bassist Nate Brenner gives Garbus a sturdy base to flail around on and the inclusion of a horn section both fleshes out and elevates some of the grander inclinations. w h o k i l l was just familiar enough and weird enough and all around exciting that tUnE-yArDs rose pretty high in the ranks of indie visibility.
With Nikki Nack, tUnE-yArDs make good on the promise of the previous albums. Garbus has mostly left behind the uke, leaning heavily and confidently on percussion and voice, and Brenner's rhythm work becomes a stronger, organizing presence in songs that have a tenancy to spill and burst with aplomb. It's the kind of album I wish I had a seven hour car ride to spend with.