Music Review

Garbus extends her Tune-yards boundaries

Merrill Garbus (pictured last month in George, Wash.) and Tune-yards played to a sold-out crowd at Royale Monday.
John Davisson/Invision/AP/file
Merrill Garbus (pictured last month in George, Wash.) and Tune-yards played to a sold-out crowd at Royale Monday.

“Find a New Way” is the name of the first song from Tune-yards’ new album, “Nikki Nack.” By accident or design, it’s also shorthand for the way Merrill Garbus, the band’s mastermind, makes art.

It’s futile to talk about Tune-yards’ music in relation to genre; you’ll drop down various rabbit holes, checking off a list that spans everything from world music and hip-hop to 1960s psychedelia and vocalese. Garbus’s vision is ruled by another set of slippery criteria: rhythm, energy, soul. It conveys a dizzying effect on record, the aural equivalent of getting steamrolled.

At Royale on Monday, Tune-yards’ new five-piece touring lineup affirmed that Garbus has finally figured out how to expand her music’s parameters in a live setting without losing its ingenuity. If anything, it was enhanced.


Garbus’s voice, in particular, was as malleable as putty, quickly morphing from thick and brawny to light and wispy within a single song such as “Bizness.” She’d sing a note or phrase, loop it through a series of pedals, and then pile layer upon dense layer until the effect was hypnotic. Nothing is stationary in Tune-yards’ compositions: The keys, time signatures, and vocals routinely splinter into different directions.

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Joining co-writer Nate Brenner on bass and Dani Markham on percussion, vocalists Jo Lampert and Abigail Nessen Bengson were essential to re-creating the new album’s glorious cacophony. Singers as much as they were dancers and court jesters, they gave depth and color to the schoolyard chants of “Water Fountain” and “Sink-O.” At times, their voices blended with Garbus’s in a way that suggested an update on the Andrews Sisters — gone haywire, that is.

In front of a sold-out crowd dotted with old friends and family, Garbus, who grew up across New England, expressed genuine gratitude for the rapturous reception she got on her home turf: “We don’t take it for granted.”

In the opening slot, Sylvan Esso was another case study in the power of oppositional forces. The duo is the brainchild of Amelia Meath, on loan from her other band, the Vermont-bred vocal trio Mountain Man, and Nick Sanborn, who plays bass with psych rockers Megafaun. On vocals, Meath added warm, organic textures to the sleek synths Sanborn coaxed from his laptop and console. Echoing the audience, Garbus was smitten with their sly take on electro R&B.

“Their songs literally haunt my dreams,” she said late in the show, perhaps unaware that the same could be said of her band. “I haven’t slept well in weeks.”

James Reed can be reached at