Album Review: Tune-Yards – sketchy.

[4AD; 2021]

Alongside the liner notes included with the vinyl edition of Merrill Garbus’s 2009 debut album as Tune-Yards, Bird-Brains, there’s a little card that reads (and I’m paraphrasing here): “I made this album in Audacity. If I can do it, so can you.” On an unassuming small piece of paper, Garbus greets the listeners of her first-ever musical document that, “Hey, look, it isn’t so hard after all.” It’s indicative of the profound earnestness that has coursed through the music that Garbus – and eventual bandmate, bassist Nate Brenner – have made over the past 12 years. 

Their last album, 2018’s I can feel you creep into my private life, saw the duo paring things back and focusing more on grooves and danceable textures, dulling their shine along the way. Not only were the tracks ironically less energetic and engaging, but their lyrics frequently crossed the line from earnestness into uncomfortable, cringe-inducing awkwardness. The duo were clearly well-intentioned, but the messaging came off kind of strange and puzzling at best, and problematic at worst, their trademark sincerity getting the better of them.

Thankfully, with their fifth album sketchy., Tune-Yards are back doing what they do best: organized chaos. This album sees Garbus and Brenner return to their hectic, sugar rush sound play, wild melodies, and passionate singing. Garbus’s writing is as pointed and topical as ever, but it’s a bit more refined and suggestive this time around, avoiding the blunt-force trauma directness of a lot of their last record. Overall, this is an album that has the underlying comments on society, inequality, classism, and other national and global issues if you want to find them, but is not necessarily begging you to hear them. sketchy. can be fully enjoyed without getting caught up in the topics at hand, mostly because Garbus and Brenner are clearly having so much fun making these songs.

Lead track and early single “nowhere, man” paints a solid portrait of where we’re headed this time around. Starting a record off with an array of such disjointed homemade samples – pitch-shifted and distorted singing, crunchy guitars, voice used as a synth – is daring, but Garbus and Brenner are pros at this type of thing by now. Where private life was mostly too staid and tame, it’s clear from the start that sketchy. sees the duo getting weird again. Nearly every song here contains an assemblage of odds and ends that somehow congeal to a satisfying and mind boggling whole.

“homewrecker” is full of constantly-affected singing, bitcrushed backing vocals, and a loop of something that sounds a little like a lo-fi recording of a duck. Garbus even breaks out about two thirds of the way through with a spotlit piano interlude, only to then subvert it with a truly alienesque vocalization. “silence pt. 1 (when we saw “we”)” has loops of breathing and handclaps, along with intermittent repetitions of the titular word, in Garbus’s blunt, disaffected voice. “Under you lip” features some hocket-style singing, reminiscent of the Tune-Yards classic “Bizness”, as well as a wall of Garbuses in the chorus that are truly redolent of one of Marnie Stern’s titanic math-rock tunes.

Throughout, Garbus’s voice is powerful, passionate, and travels across her entire range, from quiet speak-singing, to gentle highs and bellowing lows, to the all-out yelps she’s been known for for practically her whole career. The percussion and drumming is inventive and colorful, as are the bevy of synths, keyboards, and horns. Brenner’s bass stays slithery and supple underneath almost every song. On album highlight “hold yourself.”, it skips along a little faster than the pace of the melody might have ordinarily wanted, providing a subtle contrast to the placidity at the song’s core. The song is a particularly stunning example of where Tune-Yards are in 2021, with distinct verses, pre-choruses, choruses, and bridges, all of which feature different elements, all complementing each other well; a truly lovely vocal from Garbus, Brenner’s bass, and the triumphant brass congeal to create arguably one of their best tunes ever.

Not every moment on sketchy. is as successful, and frankly “hold yourself.” is so much stronger than the songs surrounding it — with poignant lyrics about how our parents’ generations lie to us, only for us to do the same thing to our children’s generation, and how we need to take control of our own lives and our own truths — it’s almost unfair to compare them. “make it right.” is full of really fun textures and samples; it’s like a little labyrinth in a snowglobe, constantly shaking listeners, making us unsure of what’s to come next, but it doesn’t add up to as much as some other songs. 

“sometime” similarly feels a little meager compared to other songs here, not aided by the unsettled structure and melodies. And “my neighbor” provides a nice slow counter to the bright, zany pace of the album, but still comes off feeling a little minor. The other slower song here, “hypnotized”, is a much stronger outing, reminiscent of past mid-tempo jams like “Time of Dark”. Garbus’s lyrics across the album are mostly much stronger and more graceful (and weirder) than on private life too, but even still can occasionally be a little clumsy. 

In the middle of the album, there’s a track called “silence pt. 2 (who is “we”?)” that is simply Garbus intoning the word “silence” and then sixty seconds of, well, silence. It feels like exactly the kind of move that might make or break the experience for some. It’s the kind of thing that defenders will point to as evidence of what the band is going for here and a nice breather from the walls of noise and strange sounds, whereas detractors might say it’s indicative of everything they don’t like about Tune-Yards. And while it does provide a respite before the glowing “hold yourself.”, it does also seem rather superfluous, and possibly even a little silly. 

Be that as it may, the faults on this album pale in comparison to the strengths. It’s a real treat to hear Garbus and Brenner back in this more colorful and adventurous mode. The production across sketchy. is daring, layered, surprising, and really very weird. It almost feels like the follow-up that the great Nikki Nack truly deserved. sketchy. may not be their out-and-out best work, but it’s proof that they still have the guts and the songwriting ability — as well as their ever-present, obvious earnestness and candor — to do what endeared their work to so many in the first place.