Alter egos

Labelmates St. Vincent and tUnE-yArDs play with characters

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Merrill Garbus, aka tUnE-yArDs
PHOTO BY CHLOE ATTEL

arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC At first blush the music of St. Vincent, the alter-ego of accomplished guitar hero Annie Clark, and that of live looping sensation tUnE-yArDs, born Merrill Garbus, don't appear to have a lot in common.

Sure, they share a gender, a label, and an impulse for quirky alias and chimerical shape-shifting, but Clark's complex guitar-and-synth driven compositions and Garbus' polyrhythmic ukulele and percussion spree emerge from completely different musical impulses and backgrounds.

Even so, their upcoming double-header at the Fox Theater promises to be a thrilling combination, as both ladies share a reputation for explosive stagecraft and are currently creating some of the most uniquely stylized pop music in the country.

Annie Clark aka St. Vincent, may have hit the cover of Spin's "Style" issue, but in interviews Clark is more likely to refer to herself not as fashionista but as a "nerd". As in, a prog-rock-loving, guitar-shredding, architecture of music kind of nerd.

Her third solo album Strange Mercy (4AD, 2011), an oblique reflection on old traumas and fresh starts is characterized by contrast. Bell-clear vocals edging towards the ethereal, meaty guitar riffs ricocheting in from unexpected directions, and soaring organ and mini-Moog fills contributed by acclaimed gospel musician, Bobby Sparks, (easily the second most striking musician on the album).

A study in contraposition both as a musician and as a media personality,Clark admits to a fondness for playing with character — further evidenced by her stage alias and deceptively delicate off-stage physicality, which belies the raw power of her live performances — but is equally quick to assert ownership of all of her public faces.

"Whenever you walk onto a stage you are fundamentally yourself," she explains over email. "It's just that you hold a mixing board to your personality and turn up some aspects and turn down others."

It's almost impossible to speak of Oakland-dwelling Merrill Garbus, or tUnE-yArDs, without referencing the time she spent studying Taarab music in Kenya. The frenetic, border-blending polyrhythms on w ho k i l l (4AD, 2011) transport the listener into an experiential space in which music and body are inextricably enmeshed.

In the current ranks of American pop-makers it's difficult to find an act to compare her to, though TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe does occasionally rise to mind, particularly in the context of vocal phrasing and politicized lyrical content.

No less of an onstage powerhouse than labelmate Clark, Garbus' personal aesthetic skews more towards that of performance artist than rock star. With a fondness for facepaint, explosive vocalization techniques, and the rubber-mask facial tics of Lily Tomlin, Garbus' previous training in the theater arts still serve as a springboard for her approach to performance, as well as composition.

"The music stems from how I can envision myself performing it," she explains. "I like to think of the music in terms of...altering space, and transformation, and the experience of the group."

Whether onstage or in the studio, Garbus flows smoothly between laying her own rhythm tracks, pounding fiercely on her uke, and charging into the musical fray with her battle cry vocals, but her personal fascination is with uncomfortable moments — highlighting them as absurdities and working thorough them with her audiences. Her other proclivity — that of an almost exaggerated playfulness — is less a spontaneous expression of id than an intentional construction of a persona who unifies the many strands of Garbus' transcontinental influences and obsessions into one cohesive force.

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