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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
The Daily
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As tUne-yArDs, Merrill Garbus whisks listeners to a weird, whimsical world of morals and magic
Mary Poppins on an acid trip
Dark lyrics, playful presentation.

With live performances that feature drum loops, field recordings, ukulele riffs and pom-poms, it's not hard to envision Merrill Garbus as a babysitter. That's how she got her start, and watching her perform as tUne-yArDs, you get the sense that she’d be great at it in a Mary-Poppins-on-an-acid-trip way.

Her vocals, at once chaotic and impossibly chill, are as unpredictable as the beats they follow, fusing soul tones and hoodoo vibes into experimental lo-fi rock. They also go from spoken to shouted to sung in a way that channels Ani DiFranco but takes itself much less seriously.

Critics didn't quite know what to make of Garbus' first album, 2009's BiRd-BrAiNs, recorded on a cassette tape with a simple voice recorder. Her breakout album, Whokill, received more favorable reviews, and lately her remarkable live shows (which now include bassist Nate Brenner) and impressive third album, Nikki Nack, have won her critical attention she doesn't seem to need. Audience interaction, rather, is her poison; don't be surprised if you end up making unearthly noises right along with her.

It's easy to overlook the powerful set of pipes that play hide-and-seek with instrumentals in Garbus' songs, just as it's easy to miss the darkness in her lyrics because of the relentlessly playful way they're plated. Aggressively performative, this anger is both wry and self-aware: "I pray to learn to pretend so I can sleep tight, but something doesn't feel right," she confesses in "Find a Way."

Haitian and East African influences can be found in both Garbus' instrumentals and vocals, and her lyrics reflect concerns about gentrification and white privilege. Concerned about rights and a sense of place, but never so self-absorbed that her reflections become navel-gazing, she has found a magical sweet spot that sports some wonderfully bizarre features. It's a fun and refreshing place to be.

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