Though tUnE-yArDs’ debut album Bird-Brains was eventually released by the famed indie label 4AD, it began as truly independent music. Merrill Garbus (also of Sister Suvi) recorded the album at home with a digital voice recorder and shareware recording software, patching together artfully messy beats, ukulele, field recordings, and her surprisingly rich, almost androgynous voice into songs with folk purity and the boldness of mash-ups. Despite -- or more likely, because of -- the pared-down instrumentation, Bird-Brains is equally eclectic and personal. She ends the winding melody of “For You” with spoken word snippets of her and a child eating blueberries, then seamlessly shifts abruptly to "Sunlight"'s bludgeoning beats and high-strung guitars. Throughout, Garbus pulls off stunning contrasts, whether it’s her torchy voice and lyrics like “tiny teenage cocks” giving “When You Tell the Lions”’ simple melody a surprising worldliness, or “Jumping Jack”’s brittle percussion and massive bass lending a menacing edge to its nursery-rhyme chant. Best of all is “Hatari”’s exotic yet homespun pop, which layers Garbus’ barbaric yawp over a beat that feels like a bhangra/hip-hop hybrid. Even on the album’s more straightforward songs, there’s something surprising to be found, like the coughs used as percussion on “Jamaican.” With all of Bird-Brains’ sonic intricacy, it takes a little while to appreciate Garbus’ equally smart and evocative lyrics, although “Synonym”’s “You remind me of when I didn’t have to wear any clothes … you remind me of the person you used to be” stand out immediately. Few debut albums are audacious enough to call to mind Odetta, M.I.A., and the Raincoats -- often all at the same time -- but this is just such a rare bird.
by Heather Phares