Wednesday, January 24, 2018

album review: 'i can feel you creep into my private life' by tune-yards

So I have a... let's call it complicated relationship with Tune-Yards, and I'm genuinely surprised the group is not more controversial among some circles. For one, if you're looking for a band that embraces a very pronounced social justice angle in their themes tune-yards will deliver, but dig a little deeper and you find a scattershot approach to songwriting that doesn't always do those ideas justice. And that's before you get the cultural appropriation conversation that has hovered around their aesthetic and production despite how you'd think graduates from New England art schools would know better. Or to put it another way, I don't think WHOKILL or Nikki Nack would have gotten nearly the same critical acclaim if they were released today in comparison to 2011 and 2014, and while I find the backlash against SJWs incredibly tedious and overdone, I'm self-aware enough to enjoy shots at Lena Dunham when she rightly deserves it, and Tune-Yards aren't far behind.

Now while I brought up all of that in my review four years ago, the larger truth is that I haven't given Tune-Yards much thought at all, mostly because they never brought any significant edge or potent melody to their sound that would draw me back. I got why a lot of critics liked them, but they were never really my thing and thus I was prepared to skip over this project altogether... until I heard two interesting revelations. One, frontwoman Merrill Garbus apparently rediscovered a love for house and disco music in the past four years, so there could be more of a defined melody to these tunes - and two, apparently those cultural appropriation comments got to Garbus and there were points where she overcorrects, and you can bet I wasn't going to miss a chance to riff on some of that! But I'll save that for the review - what did we get on the oh-so-awkwardly titled i can feel you creep into my private life?

Okay, I'm of a few minds on this. On the one hand, even despite my snide comments in the opening of this review, I'm firmly of the belief that the only way people learn and grow any sort of social conscience is if they're given a chance to try and make mistakes, and it's clear that Merrill Garbus is trying really damn hard with i can feel you creep into my private life. On the other hand, the same slapdash effort that characterized previous Tune-Yards records is just as present here, which leads to some real cringe-worthy moments that I'm not sure the compositions elevate or save. Some people have already made the Macklemore comparison for this brand of overcompensating 'wokeness', but at least Macklemore at his most conscious and earnest made the effort to make it more than about just him and his place in the art, actively willing to step back... something I'm not sure Garbus does to the same degree.

And to explain this, I want to reference a controversial track from last year from Jason Isbell, 'White Man's World'. In that song, Isbell doesn't mince words surrounding an acknowledgement of the privilege he has - but he does so in service of the hook calling out the dismantling of the power structures propagating it, as well an acknowledgement that not only how it might not succeed, but if it does it'll be his wife and daughter who'll receive the most, not him - he'll lend his voice, but he's not the one to lead this fight. It's a nasty, uncompromising track that rocked the country music world more than many will admit - and it also damn near made my list of the best songs of 2017, for the record - but I want to highlight here is the framing - because Isbell gets that his angst isn't what matters in this particular cultural conversation. 

And if you're looking for the foundational reason why Merrill Garbus' similar-on-the-surface commentary hits cringe-worthy territory, it's because she doesn't grasp that - and that means her examination of white privilege plays out with increasingly broad, increasingly self-focused self-flagellation that I don't think anyone privileged or not wants to hear. Again, on the surface Garbus calling out systemic inequality and conspicuous consumption and how white supremacy hurts everyone, these are fair points to be made, but it's the framing of these points that falls in frustrating territory. Part of this is the fact that Merrill Garbus' choice to embrace more disco and house textures means there isn't the same room for lyrical nuance in percussion-heavy dance floor jams - ironic as she swaps out one historically black art form for two others, but that's neither here nor there - and part of it is that Garbus is willing to admit she's a people-pleaser and she doesn't always grasp the subtler nuances of the subjects she's targeting. So maybe it's not the best idea to tackle this content in a way where it seems like she's constantly got one eye on the audience begging for her social conscience to be elevated and tacking on half-hearted excuses! As early as the first song 'Heart Attack' where the confrontation begins she highlights how she's 'only human', with the next song seeing extremes on both sides and on 'ABC 123' saying all she knows is 'white centrality', or on the back half of the record we get lines on 'Home' like 'came to get down, but you're not telling my story, man' - which in the annotations Garbus flat out admits that she wants to own it, even despite the rest of the song calling her a fool! That's the awkward thing about the self-awareness on this record: for as much as she wants to eviscerate her own privilege on 'Now As Then' and 'Honesty' and especially the excruciating 'Colonizer', she's trying to balance it so she remains the center of the narrative, which doesn't help! Hell, the closer 'Free' is all about how she is also a victim of white supremacy and now she's woke to it... seemingly unaware that by not taking any real confrontational stance and a slew of ego-focused half-measures, she's likely not to face any real consequences.

And that's not even getting into the execution, which swaps out much of the African percussion for jittery, jagged samples of synth, choppy vocals, blubbery basslines, glitch that detracts more from these mixes than helps them, and house tones that might as well have been pulled from a Deee-lite record in the mid-90s. I'll say it, it's actually a little stunning how the tones across this album don't really sound all that challenging or eclectic in comparison with 90s house, and with less of a focus on hooks to instead look at the message, it's hard not to feel like the record suffers. Now I'll say this for Tune-Yards: if you can ignore the lyrics - and songs like 'Colonizer' make this damn near impossible with all the references to a white woman's hair, tears, and voice - there are some solid grooves here. I like the windswept gleam and sharper beat of 'Coast to Coast', 'Heart Attack' does have some unstable, percussive momentum, and 'Hammer' is probably the best song here for its sharper keys and horns - as well as a hook that feels grounded and direct in its politics - and how it transitions into 'Who Are You', where the reggae-inspired synths augment the flutes and horns, especially that sax solo. But on the flipside, whenever Tune-Yards tries to bring in glitchier or atonal elements it's nearly always a misfire, from the ugly breakdowns on 'Now As Then' and 'Honesty', to the dissonant, gurgling glitch of 'Colonizer' - and yes, I get that song was using the African vocal lines to emphasize Garbus' guilt, but for as much as you want to avoid cultural appropriation comparisons, using the same sonic palette here kind of defeats your own point, especially when you continue to do it on songs like 'Private Life'! And 'Free' was just a painful way to end the record, all synthesized vocals keening at precisely the right tone to give me a splitting migraine.

But going back to 'Private Life', where I want to tie this all together is in a reference that Garbus makes to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African gospel group elevated to mainstream prominence thanks to their collaboration on Paul Simon's landmark 1986 record Graceland, which was incredibly controversial at the time for similar conversations of cultural appropriation. Hell, perhaps even moreso, given that Simon had gone to Johannesburg to record with black musicians who he later would bring on tour, elevating their voices to measurable success but also potentially breaking the cultural boycott in South Africa still in the throes of apartheid, and that's not even getting into the political dimensions. And here, Garbus wants to hear the voice of a band that inspired her - one she probably would have never heard without Paul Simon's elevation of the group - and elevate their voice over hers. It's a moment reflecting nuance that many critics have claimed Tune-Yards and Merrill Garbus has always had in showing both the social justice cause and the allure of the system placed against it - and yet in execution it rings hollow, because not only across this record does she not do what Simon did in any cultural exchange, not only is the song framed around what it can deliver to her private life, but it embraces elements of the same aesthetic for which she was castigating herself earlier on the project. In other words, while I understand what Tune-Yards were trying with this, this album feels less about the causes once triumphed and more about a self-serving, painfully awkward deconstruction of ego filled with half-measures and tunes nowhere sharp or colourful enough to save it. For me, this only gets an extremely light 5/10 because I can respect good intentions and a few decent tracks, but I have no idea who the audience is for this. Maybe that diehard white liberal lacking any self-consciousness and who never shuts the hell up could find some catharsis from this - but considering it didn't click for me in that vein, I wouldn't put money on it.

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