(Photos by Daniel Kielman)
The eyes were everywhere Friday at The Fillmore. The stage was decorated with four basic-looking cutouts of them, and the whole backdrop was situated like Andy Warhol redecorated the set of Zenon. That outta this world tone is one Merrill Garbus has mastered, and though the dressing of the stage was an odd fit for openers Sylvan Esso, it perfectly space-suited Garbus and tUnE-yArDs.
Sylvan Esso only opened the first of two sold-out nights at the Fillmore, even though they have been riding high following the release of their self-titled album in May. The angel-faced Amelia Meath has a fittingly supernal voice, but her lines adhere to Nick Sanborn’s arrangements as ardently as the duo works to “shake people.” Their energetic set compelled Meath to R&B contorting, body rolls, and two-stepping, and there were moments when it looked like she was running a Zumba class, but that’s sort of the startling beauty of Sylvan Esso. Meath and Sanborn, like tUnE-yArDs, exist in a post-genre world, where every trope, tempo, and timbre are fair game. They’re taking you wherever they’re going, and you can’t really help but watch it happen.
tUnE-yArDs played the Chapel last month, and Merrill Garbus was, in her own words, scared shitless. The duo had hidden themselves away for a bit, emerging with this year’s nikki nack, and played the Chapel as sort of a re-opening party. The new album they tested out was a bit less outlandish than their last album, 2011’s w h o k i l l, but still eloquently undermined the delineations of the pop genre. nikki nack, then, is not really a collection of pop ditties, as each song on it pushes the work further away from what is considered standard popular music, but the songs’ uncompromising indelibility still beckons that label. Garbus draws influence from so many places, from her Haitian and African travels to some self-imposed reverse-engineering, that the album comes across as a wild mélange of eccentric forces. Sometimes it’s just easiest to call something that’s catchy “pop music” regardless of how complicated and nuanced it actually is.
The Fillmore might have been more intimidating for a lesser personality. While Garbus was admittedly “very comfortable,” she was also pretty wired. “None of this jaded rockstar bullshit,” she yelled over her flamboyantly loud, shiny get-up. “None of that. This is exciting.” And then Garbus began to sing with that familiar wide-eyed wild fierceness.
tUnE-yArDs played “Gangsta” from w h o k i l l second. That track makes instrumental a pastiche of violent sounds, like percussive gunshots and an electronic rendition of a Swiss ambulance siren. “Powa,” from the same album, played sixth or so, has the same sort of feel, but allows Garbus stretching room. Although she has questioned whether or not she should even keep singing, this song proves her vocal power is actually pretty damn formidable.
One of the main differences with tUnE-yArDs’ live show is that you get the chance to see them make the spacey, bizarre sounds from the albums in person. In some songs, Garbus looks like she’s making herself laugh with the sounds she’s producing, and you can watch first-hand how effortless the backup singers’ synchronicity really is. And though it all seems so odd, tUnE-yArDs isn’t really. They manage to arrange chaos and noise into an organically tempered melody with curious precision and ease, especially on the tracks from this year’s nikki nack. Essentially, they make weird seem palatably normal. Syncopations ain’t shit, and key signatures are for the weak-hearted—not for tUnE-yArDs.
“Rocking Chair,” the first song of the encore saw Sylvan Esso’s Meath re-enter the stage. This version, which united Meath, Garbus and her background singers was far more flawless than the album version. Meath smoothed Garbus’ rough edges, and though the voices separately are far different from each other, a restrained Garbus accompanied by Meath’s thoughtful harmony brought a soft swing to the slightly aggressive album version.
tUnE-yArDs is nothing if not dynamic. To create music in a post-genre frame, I guess you’d have to be. But most importantly, there’s a ballsyness there. It’s calmed a bit since w h o k i l l, but one look at Garbus’ metallic silver dress, laser lemon-dyed hair and trademark face paint says they haven’t forgotten who they are, even among all the noise.