Tune-Yards' Signature Style Makes Their Modern-Day Musings Stand Out on 'sketchy.'

BY Rhys JuergensenPublished Mar 24, 2021

The duo of Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner have been making substantial noise as Tune-Yards for over a decade now, including their 2011 breakout album, w h o k i l l, and the score to 2018 film Sorry to Bother Yousketchy., the project's fifth studio record, takes listeners to a world where spacy trap and glitchy alt-rock play host to a wide array of topical subject matter. Imagine Massive Attack's instrumentals combined with Bob Dylan's lyrics plus a gratuitous helping of John Frusciante-style harmonic soundscapes, which Garbus creates by looping and layering her vocal tracks. 

That said, sketchy. can't be reduced to a formula. A few of the album's songs make reference to an eclectic array of genres: opening track "nowhere, man" goes a bit swing, pairing a late-night, electro-jazz instrumental with Garbus' unique version of scat singing. "homewrecker" and "be not afraid." are bass-heavy odes to industrial grunge. "hold yourself.," with its dreamy synth pop, feel-good sax, and karaoke-friendly vocal hooks, is an unequivocal revisitation of the '80s. In many ways, sketchy. represents what we've come to expect from Tune-Yards: it's interesting, unconventional, and intense.

sketchy. offers the kind of music that's best enjoyed alone at 2 a.m. with a helping of psychedelics, but  it's more than a late-night trip — it's a pensive, provocative experience. The record puts Garbus's most visceral feelings to lyrical and musical form: with singular and directed focus, the album addresses some of the most pressing social, cultural, and political concerns in her world. Though drumming on tracks like "make it right." and "hypnotized" occasionally overpower the songwriting, the songs are redeemed by Garbus' vocal wizardry. In the verses, she meanders all over the scale in an offhand way, but dishes out a cathartic climax of soaring harmonies that make for some epic choruses.

What's made Tune-Yards' music enjoyable in the past is Garbus's undiluted individuality — her talented writing, distinct voice, and signature style. And though sketchy. weighs in on a number of issues that are particularly pertinent in today's milieu, it doesn't compromise the album's sincerity. The record's explicit, prose-style lyrics manage to convey strong levels of intimacy precisely because Garbus says what she means, and means what she says. Many artists are quick to adopt a prefab script of righteous indignation, but Garbus and Brenner don't take shortcuts. 

"make it right." calls out Baby Boomers for a comprehensive set of mistakes. Garbus sings, "How much would it take / was he willing for his children's sake / to look ahead as a human, and make it right?" In a similar vein, "hold yourself." criticizes '80s excess — and those who grew up in it — as much as it stylistically refers to its music. Not leaving much to the imagination, Garbus sings, "Parents, they made us, they tried to raise us / but parents betrayed us, even when they tried / they hold us closely while telling us lies they told themselves."

On "homewrecker," Garbus sings, "A home will make me strong / a pre-approval for a life of wiping history away / a pre-approval for a debt that I will never pay." The words aren't subtle, but they are well-composed and evocative. They're the result of reflection, emotion, criticality, and most importantly, skill. And that's why, amongst the crowd of artists desperately clamouring for cultural relevance, sketchy. manages to say something genuinely meaningful.

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