Lo-fi is a difficult aesthetic to get on board with at the end of the Noughties. When music technology is so accessible that any kid with headphones, a midi-keyboard and a cracked copy of Reason can sound like Timbaland, then the 'lo-fi' sound has essentially become an aesthetic choice. No longer borne of necessity, it used to conjure images of Daniel Johnston-esque musicians swinging tape decks alongside broken keyboards in bedrooms and family garages; the reality now is that lo-fi can be just as contrived and overproduced as a Rick Rubin jam.
Though tUnE-yArDs’ debut album Bird-Brains was eventually released by the famed indie label 4AD, it began as truly independent music. Merrill Garbus (also of Sister Suvi) recorded the album at home with a digital voice recorder and shareware recording software, patching together artfully messy beats, ukulele, field recordings, and her surprisingly rich, almost androgynous voice into songs with folk purity and the boldness of mash-ups. Despite -- or more likely, because of -- the pared-down instrumentation, Bird-Brains is equally eclectic and personal.
Short of whittling one’s own instruments out of homegrown spruce and staging impromptu door-to-door performances, it would be difficult to imagine a more DIY-spirited outfit circa 2009 than tUnE-YaRdS. The solo home-recording project of Merrill Garbus (the lone Yankee member of the otherwise Canadian trio Sister Suvi), her debut album BiRd-BrAiNs was crafted over the course of two years using a Sony digital voice recorder and the free online sound-editing program Audacity before being digitally distributed throughout 2008 and early 2009 via an In Rainbows-style pay-what-you-want donation program (it was then released physically on vinyl from Portland-based Marriage Records earlier this year). Far from being the sparse recording that might be expected from such a bare-bones approach, though, the album is busy with clattering percussion and incidental noises and voices.
When you talk about lo-fi more or less inspired by folk, the best stuff always carries with it a sense of discovery. Cheap and tinny acoustic music should feel like something you stumbled upon, like maybe you dug it out of an old drawer or rescued it from the freebee bin in the thrift store. And then the force of the music should sparkle through the grit and hiss and distortion and make you think you understand something about the person making it.
Merrill Garbus's debut as tUnE-YaRDs is a Dogme production of an album. Each element was recorded to a digital voice recorder, and assembled on her laptop – it's grainy, fuzzy and fragmented; reedy ukelele is prominent. It even has aesthetic choices worthy of Lars von Trier – Jumping Jack will prompt the unwary to sing "and his black and white cat" – but it's also quite brilliant.