Album Review: Tune-Yards — sketchy.

Categories:  Music    The Arts
Tuesday, April 6th, 2021 at 7:52 PM
Album Review: Tune-Yards — sketchy. by Teddy Rankin

Challenging times call for challenging art. The latest album from art-pop duo, tUnE-yArDs, aims to match the confusing whirlwind of the recent political climate with an equally disorienting soundtrack. From humble beginnings self-releasing recycled cassette tapes in 2009, tUnE-yArDs has grown into a critical darling blend of experimental instrumentation and poetic social commentary. Frontwoman Merrill Garbus, alongside co-producer and bassist Nate Brenner, have never shied away from heavy emotional themes, but their new album “sketchy.” reveals an aspect of ambiguity that implies the complicated nuances of our world may be incomprehensible.

The album opens with “nowhere, man,” a feminist anthem about abortion rights in the United States. Accompanied by tUnE-yArDs’ familiar combination of polyrhythmic beats and layered samples, Garbus’ soulful vocals tell an all-too-familiar story about a patriarchal society that devalues female voices, singing, “Screaming babies are your problem/Seems like Jesus and Dylan got the whole thing wrong/If you cannot hear a woman/Then how can you write her song.” She goes on to encourage listeners to speak out until their calls for change leave “nowhere to run/nowhere to hide.”

Elsewhere, on “make it right.,” tUnE-yArDs attempts to tackle the difficult topic of race relations. Self-aware that much of their musical style is derived from the innovation of black artists, the duo recognizes these influences and attempts to validate their appropriation by using their platform to promote anti-racism, adding, “top down doesn’t cut it.” In a moment of honest self-reflection, Garbus sings: “In my voice you can hear what I owe/It’s a debt from a long time ago … So go ahead, make me human/Make it right.” By acknowledging that things aren’t currently “right,” tUnE-yArDs outlines a crucial step in white allyship while never pretending to play the role of savior. The song cuts off mid-sentence, signifying that there is still work to be done.

A common issue with other well-intentioned political or social commentary albums is a lack of emphasis on the listener. It would be easy for an artist to tell you what's wrong with the world without a real call to action. However, on “sketchy.,” tUnE-yArDs is unafraid to share the inconvenient truth that you are probably part of the problem in some way or another.

Halfway through the album, on “silence pt.1 (when we say ‘we’),” Garbus sings, “I am one drop in the ocean/I am one fist of many fingers … change yourself to change the world.” The next track, “silence pt. 2 (who is ‘we’?),” is an unconventional 60 seconds of pure silence for the listener to reflect on their role in making our world a better place. You may be thinking that this doesn't sound very fun to listen to, but it's actually pretty inspiring. We are all in this together, and each of us must make an effort to be better.

The profound silence is broken with “hold yourself.,” a song that reinforces the ideal of self-accountability. Over the album’s softest and warmest tones, Garbus reminds us that, “We all have doubts/We all have rage/We all have trouble being brave enough to turn the page/But we will.”

After giving listeners plenty to contemplate, tUnE-yArDs leaves them with a simple message on the closing track, “be not afraid..” For an album that covers such intense and topical themes, “sketchy.” is an insanely fun listen. Emanating positivity and never slipping into ennui, the break-neck changes of rhythm and melody replicate how it feels to be alive in such a complicated era. While this album is more a painting in the Guggenheim than a Facebook cat picture, it is no less enjoyable.

Teddy Rankin is the Music Editor for The Spectator. He can be reached at edinboro.spectator@gmail.com.

Tags: album review

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