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tUnE-yArDs: Pop Genius, Cleverly Obscured

Sometimes, a great pop song proclaims itself openly and instantly. Sometimes, great songs arrive with their treasures much less obvious.

That's more the approach of Merrill Garbus, whose solo project is spelled tUnE-yArDs. (Hey, you won't forget her name, right?) Her 2009 album BiRd-BrAiNs began life as a DIY cassette release, assembled with a handheld voice recorder — the "note to self" kind — and free audio-editing software. Enterprising as the backstory is, it also accounts for the low fidelity of the document, even as commercially issued by 4AD. Other factors that make "Hatari" particularly thorny to navigate: jangly strumming, jarring cuts, found-sound epilogues, Swahili lyrics.

But Garbus has a stunning sense for assembling that noise, those limited resources, to spectacular effect. (On stage, she's only a microphone, some drums, a ukulele and a loop pedal, accompanied by an electric bassist.) Those miraculous vocal layers. That handcrafted, demented beat. The way the whole thing builds up to a screeching climax, before — [deep breath] — abruptly, a cappella: "There is a natural sound that wild things make when they're bound." That seems about right; Garbus has serious pipes, and properly employed, they can induce a primal chill.

Basically, Garbus is both a star producer and star talent. And that's not only redemptive in theory; "Hatari" wouldn't be worth listeners' attention if that something weren't immediately captivating. It's a noisy, threadbare patchwork, but the tune shines in spite of it all. Or, depending on your fancy, you could also amend that to read "because of it all," too.

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