There are moments during tonight’s set that tUnE-yArDs realise the failed ambition behind Arcade Fire’s Reflektor.
With its junk-shop aesthetic of ferocious Haitian poly-rhythms, jagged handclaps, playground chants, and funky bass-lines the 12 tracks reveal little of the writers’ block that Merrill Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner reportedly suffered when composing third album Nikki Nack.
A transitional release between the New Englander’s DIY ethos and increased musical sophistication, its biggest step forward is arguably the use of R&B producers Malay and John Hill, who’ve worked with M.I.A. and Frank Ocean. This brings out the powerful soul in Garbus’ vocals on the hip-hop Afro-beat ‘Real Thing’ and cartoonish tick-tock percussion on former single ‘Wait For A Minute’.
It’s nonetheless sophistication by gradients and while a few years back she toured with little more than battered ukulele and loop pedal, she now fronts a five-piece band of experimental war-painted multi-percussionists and irrepressible backing singers-cum-dancers.
This hasn’t in any way tempered her unique musical vision, which has the performance art-pop of St Vincent and the dance-rock innovation of The Tom Tom Club. Pitched obliquely between the two, the combination sees her yodelling and scat singing over a 90-minute set that’s a joyously contradictory affair.
It’s a conflict that sees Garbus singing about bloody dollars on the insatiable nursery rhyme chants of ‘Water Fountain’; crying ‘Holiday! Lets go crazy!’ like a low rent Madonna on the anti-gentrification ode ‘Left Behind’; and creating a tribal-urban hybrid on the thrilling ‘Gangsta’, on which her voice is looped into the sound of a police siren.
A visceral and thrilling evening that has more ideas than most acts find in their entire career, tUnE-yArDs unselfconsciously prove that it’s possible to mature without growing up.
Gig date; July 1