tUnE-yArDs w/Micachu & the Shapes, Delicate Steve
Friday, June 1
Better than: Seeing the “Naked Cowgirl.”
Merrill Garbus was vamping on “Powa,” one of the sexier tracks off tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l, when a sudden synthesizer malfunction interrupted her banshee wail with a country swing demo that reverberated through the acoustic echo chamber that is Terminal 5. Tenor saxophonist Matt Nelson didn’t miss a beat, chiming in with a honky-tonk growl.
“It’s actually programmed on there to say, ‘Okay, Merrill’s taking herself too seriously,'” Garbus quipped.
This quintessentially uncool, fourth-wall-breaking moment defines Garbus as an unflappable but vulnerable Amazonian oracle of Oakland, what Janis Joplin might have been if she picked up the ukulele and joined the Peace Corps. Yes, she should be taken seriously, but the most recent winner of the Pazz & Jop albums poll is not above self-deprecating humor.
“I went to Times Square and saw the Naked Cowboy lady. That’s who I want to be when I’m 55,” she said. “Real nice, saggy breasts, and in Times Square playing guitar, or ukulele, as the case may be.”
In the meantime, Garbus bared all by slamming a snare drum and a tom-tom with a relentless fury, rallying the crowd on “Gangsta” as the band bobbed like crazed rabbits to the siren call vocal line. Her music doesn’t fit everyone’s definition of panty-dropping, but on several occasions, undergarments were quite literally flying. The off-the-rails horn section, both Oberlin grads with progressive jazz bona fides, blend Garbus’s pop sensibility with an anarchic avant-garde touch, taking a refreshing cue from John Zorn’s Naked City.
To paraphrase Lena Dunham, Garbus might be the voice of a generation—or, at least, a voice. This is clearest on “Bizness,” one of the strongest and most unapologetic entries from a year of melancholic break-up singles. She took her time reaching the chorus, stretching out each piercing peal of disenchantment as long as she could. Hearing it live, it’s clear that Garbus is an irrepressible force of nature who doesn’t wallow in self-pity, a totem to girl power who snatches victory from the jaws of defeat; whoever it was that inspired the song, she’s over it and relishing that fact.
The London-based post-punk trio Micachu & The Shapes (who are also playing tonight at Glasslands) preceded tUnE-yArDs; the band’s imminent sophomore album, Never (Rough Trade), an edgy, deceptively catchy noise manifesto. Frontwoman Mica Levi’s stage name might bring to mind that of a Pokémon character—its last syllable actually comes from the “chu,” a jerry-rigged guitar, one of many homemade instruments—but Levi is pure, unadulterated punk, the dutifully rebellious daughter Joey Ramone never had, albeit with significantly shorter hair. Dressed in a large white polo shirt, black skinny jeans, and black platform shoes, Levi commanded an iconoclastic stage presence that never felt forced.
The Shapes are constantly shifting, flitting between genres in aggressive jump cuts, songs oddly truncated. But they capture the zeitgeist, meshing existential angst with distortion-heavy dissonance that reaches a cognitive level, a restless, ADHD response to years of being told we could be whatever we wanted until the bottom fell out.
This proved especially true on “You Know,” an uptempo, synth-laden track that erupted with Levi screaming “I know” louder and louder, giving the impression she could peer into the darkest depths of someone’s soul with zero fear. On “Nowhere,” the manic closer, a guitar-synth-drums battle royale shunted off into white noise oblivion, then without warning, the bottom finally did fall out and it was all over. If punk’s dead, no one told her.
Critical bias: Weakness for Brits and sax players with chops.
Overheard: [On Micachu & the Shapes] “They’re like a cross between Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love.”
Random notebook dump: Where is all the panty-throwing coming from?