Concert Catch-Up Week, Day 5: tUnE-yArDs
(click here if you missed Day 1: Todd Snider, here if you missed Day 2: Justin Townes Earle, here if you missed Day 3: Radiohead, and here if you missed Day 4: Mariachi El Bronx)
I hate it when famous people I like don’t get along.
The subject of music feuds came up a few hours before my friend Coyle and I saw Radiohead in Washington D.C. And before you ask, no, the music feud I’m talking about isn’t the one about us buying the same M. Ward shirt, though I am wearing it as I type this — hear that Coyle?!? No, the subject came up because our pre-show listening regimen leaned heavily on Arctic Monkeys, to whom Coyle’s been listening quite a bit recently. As we talked about Suck It and See, Arctic Monkeys’ most recent album, it dawned on me that I hadn’t given the band a fair chance over the years, and I’m pretty sure it’s because of something Thom Yorke said a little while back. Of AM and their rapid rise to fame, Yorke was quoted in 2006 as saying:
“The fact that poor Arctic Monkeys are getting so much attention is purely based on the fact that the mainstream music business is such a bunch of fucking retards as far as I’m concerned.”
Looking back at this incident with the benefits of hindsight and Google, it seems totally unfair (and dumb) for me to have let a single utterance, especially a flippant one that was mainly directed at the mainstream music industry, steer me away from a group I’d been starting to enjoy. But a half decade of tepid listening, a heavy Radiohead bias and the fact that AM drummer Matt Helders had fired back a shot about Radiohead being boring all worked together to warp my memory, and I found myself saying to Coyle something like, “I haven’t listened to them much. I think they said something not so nice about Radiohead at one point.” It’s embarrassing to admit it, but I seem to have passively chosen a side in a disagreement that took place 6 years ago between two people I’ve never met, which means that I’m just now finding out how great Suck It and See is. Crazy, right?
The music feud tugging at my consciousness this time? The unflattering piece that one of my favorite writers, Chuck Klosterman, wrote in January for Grantland in reaction to tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l winning a critics’ award for best album of 2011. To be fair, it’s hard to call this a “feud,” given that I don’t remember hearing/reading a Merrill Garbus tat to match Kolsterman’s tit, and Klosterman admitted to not having listened to her enough to pass a decisive judgement, stopping well short of equating her success with retardation (just a hypothetical collective delusion). Nevertheless, what Klosterman said bugged me. Still does. I haven’t stopped being a huge fan of his writing (do yourself a favor and read his thing about seeing Nickelback and Creed in one night), and I’m far too enamored with Garbus to be scared off of tUnE-yArDs, but I can’t help getting distracted by stuff like this. Habitual hero worship will do that, I guess.
But seeing her perform proved one thing beyond distraction, a truth that no article or magazine quote could ever alter — Merrill Garbus is one freakishly talented musician. I would have said “freakishly talented human being,” but she belongs with Chris Thile in the category of “people” who do things on stage that make them seem like they’re just not from this world. The power and precision of her voice… its flexibility, which makes her sound like completely different people from one moment to the next… her ridiculous internal metronome, which allows her to build and manipulate complex looped percussion for each song with mind-boggling efficiency (I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such rhythm-envy in my life)… her masterful ear for momentum… the way she uses dynamics to swell songs until they burst. All of it was on display, and I was amazed. Amazed at how she wields sound with seemingly limitless facility. Amazed that I was in the same room as the person making these sounds. And amazed that anyone could deem her unworthy of any award she was offered.
If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to go see tUnE-yArDs for yourself and experience what I’m talking about. Your jaw will drop. You will probably start dancing (I saw some truly wild moves that night at the Jefferson). And you will forget about anything anyone (including me) has said about her on the Internet. If you haven’t yet given her a listen, check out the samples below. Be sure to try “Gangsta,” which first appeared on her album w h o k i l l and was featured on the above-pictured remix EP alongside a re-work from The Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock.