Review Summary: Smile for us!
Back in the day, the first thing many people make note of when talking about Merrill Garbus’s art pop solo-project-turned-duo was the stylization of the name. The alternating caps stylization was definitely eye-catching, and a simple way to get a bit of attention on the surface level. And while they’ve since dropped that particular style in recent years, I always thought it was a bit of a shame, because I had always thought that it fit the music well. Artsy, energetic pop that played with sounds and genres and was unafraid to get a little weird. It was silly, but it worked.
But what’s in a name, really?
sketchy., Tune-Yards’ newest outing, proves that while the project has changed over time, they’re still capable of making pop with a sharper bite. I’ll be the first to admit that I was surprised by that fact. 2018’s I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life saw the duo push down their more experimental urges for a more standard alt-dance sound. And while I’m sure that album has its fans, it did feel like a definite blunder to many, including myself. sketchy. isn’t exactly a textbook “return-to-form” for Tune-Yards, but more of a solid retooling. In a lot of ways, it feels like a redo of that 2018 album. I suppose when described like that, it’s a tougher sell. But I really do think they make it work here.
It’s strange to say it, but a lot of the appeal of this album for me comes from what Tune-Yards stripped out of their sound on this record. Sure, some elements from that 2018 album do still remain here. But only the good. It would be easy to say that previous album was totally irredeemable, but it did have some interesting things going on. And those little flourishes return on sketchy. Things like those muted, fuzzy basslines on “hypnotized”, or “hold yourself.’s” bleating saxophones. Garbus’s vocals are still a tad richer than they were a decade ago. All of these are good elements to keep. What they didn’t keep was the unnecessary synthpop or the failed attempts at commentary. While this album is much shallower water by comparison, it’s definitely a lot more palatable and ends up feeling a whole lot less embarrassing because of it. It’s, dare I say it, danceable. Even happy, at certain moments.
Not one to be knocked down for long, Tune-Yards does feel invigorated and ready to fight on sketchy. It’s a direction that makes sense to their audience, definitely. Though, there is the faintest worry in the very back of my mind, about whether this album is a proper course correction or a sudden change in plans caused by the backlash from their last record. There’s definitely an air of bitterness on tracks like “nowhere, man”, where Garbus repeatedly states that people “only want to hear her sing” over an (admittedly-funky) baseline.
Putting your heart into your work is difficult, especially after seeing it get dragged through the coals once before. The painted-on, toothy smile sketchy. dons is convincing enough to get you through its 37-minute runtime. But Tune-Yards may be the ones that need convincing sooner rather than later. “tUnE-yArDs” may never come back, and that’s okay.