Artists of the Year 2011
Brent Schoonover and Mike Kooiman
How fitting that one of the most arresting symbols of the Occupy movement—the V for Vendetta mask depicted on our cover—was derived from that most accessible of art forms, the comic novel. (See our essay on Alan Moore below.)
It's fitting because the arts have often been accused of elitism—of being a pursuit of the wealthy, or at least the snobby.
It isn't true, of course. Yes, the rich can be the most conspicuous consumers of art—the people who attend Sotheby's auctions and buy season subscriptions to the opera and sit on the boards of museums. But art is made and appreciated by every class of people—it's a pursuit of the 100 percenters. Art is in our DNA, part of the human experience since the first primitive drummers and cave painters and storytellers.
And so in that democratic spirit we present our 2011 Artists of the Year awards, in which we honor a few of the artists and writers who inspired us in the past year. At its best, life should be a never-ending protest—against complacency, lack of imagination, and dullness of spirit. These artists, like all artists, are the revolutionaries leading the way.
Alan Moore and the 99%By Kevin Hoffman
Comic-book characters rarely escape the four-color confines of their fictional worlds, but that's exactly what happened this year when the V for Vendetta mask became an international symbol of resistance.
Modeled after Guy Fawkes, who in 1604 conspired to assassinate King James with a bomb made of gunpowder on the Fifth of November, the V mask has now become omnipresent. It first reared its smirking visage at protests against Scientology by Anonymous, but it quickly became the de rigueur uniform of the Occupy movement, and Shepard Fairey recently recast his famous Obama "Hope" portrait with the V mask.
The image first appeared in 1981 in V for Vendetta, the graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd. It told the story of a dystopian British future ruled by a totalitarian dictator who maintains control through a computer system called Fate. The title character is an anarchist revolutionary who rescues young Evey Hammond and enlists her in his plot to bring down the government.
V made his debut on the silver screen in a 2006 adaptation by the Wachowski brothers of Matrix fame. While widely panned, and disavowed by Moore, the movie did offer one lasting cultural contribution: The V mask was released by Time Warner as a promotional item and remains available to purchase for $10.
Notoriously protective of attempts to co-opt his work, Moore greeted the protesters' adoption of the V mask with a kind of grandfatherly bemusement. "I suppose when I was writing V for Vendetta I would in my secret heart of hearts have thought: Wouldn't it be great if these ideas actually made an impact?" Moore told the U.K. Guardian in November.
He clearly understands the transcendent appeal of the V mask. "It turns protests into performances. The mask is very operatic; it creates a sense of romance and drama," Moore told the Guardian. "And when you've got a sea of V masks, I suppose it makes the protesters appear to be almost a single organism—this '99 percent' we hear so much about."
Yet Moore seemed to resist taking up the cause of the Occupiers who had taken up his mask. That changed when fellow comic-book author Frank Miller—the Dark Knight Returns creator who took a sharp right turn after the September 11 attacks—lashed out at the movement on his blog.
"'Occupy' is nothing short of a clumsy, poorly expressed attempt at anarchy ... by a bunch of iPhone-, iPad-wielding spoiled brats who should stop getting in the way of working people and find jobs for themselves," Miller bloviated. "This is no popular uprising. This is garbage."
Like V swooping in to save Evey, Moore came to the protesters' defense against his fellow comic creator, calling Miller's recent work both misogynistic (Sin City) and homophobic (300).
"It's a completely justified howl of moral outrage, and it seems to be handled in a very intelligent, nonviolent way, which is probably another reason why Frank Miller would be less than pleased with it," Moore told the website HonestPublishing.com. "I'm sure if it had been a bunch of young, sociopathic vigilantes with Batman makeup on their faces, he'd be more in favor of it."
Kevin Hoffman is the editor of City Pages and a longtime fan of comics.
Steven EppBy Ed Huyck
The death of Theatre de la Jeune Lune has loomed large over the Twin Cities theater landscape over the past three years, but that void is slowly being filled by furiously creative artists, new and old, who have kept the spirit of Jeune Lune alive. That includes the former company members who have remained in the area making maddening, inventive, and enthralling theater for us all. In 2011, Steven Epp made tremendous contributions on both sides of the boards.
With Ten Thousand Things, he helped craft what I thought impossible: a fresh, breathtaking interpretation of Man of La Mancha. As the lead, he made the entire house his playground, tossing off asides to the audience, using a program as an improvised sword, and presenting a stunning a cappella version of "The Impossible Dream" that was a top moment in the theater last year. In the fall, he turned to scriptwriting, creating a funny, incisive, and most of all endearing version of the Italian Il Campiello. The script, supported by some of the most inventive playground-type taunts I've ever heard, gave the talented cast a great foundation for a terrific performance.
Epp's biggest triumph came when he married the two halves together in Come Hell and High Water, a piece created by Epp, Jeune-Lune colleague Dominique Serrand, and their nascent group the Moving Company. Using a William Faulkner novella as its base, the inventive piece merged music and movement, with astonishing moments of transformation. Some of that came from Epp, who played a man freshly freed from prison after decades, reflecting back on the last time he was free–during a 1927 flood that altered the landscape and his life.
Ed Huyck is City Pages' theater critic.
Holly NewsomBy Andrea Swensson
"Transcendence" is a word that gets overused a lot these shock-and-awe days. But how should one describe that moment when an artist tugs on the gauzy corners of space and time and seems to stand the room on its ear? How to put into words that intoxicating and otherwordly element of musical expression that pushes the performer onto another plane?
Transcendence isn't the end goal of Holly Newsom's art; rather, it seems to be its basis. Newsom's public and proud relationship with her own muse has made her one of the Twin Cities' most alluring and elusive young voices in rock music. There's a reason nearly every interview with the Zoo Animal frontwoman inevitably discusses her religion—those of us living the mortal life down here on earth can't possibly comprehend her raw and wrenching stage presence, her fearless earnestness. There is a purity to her purpose that is unparalleled in the muddy world of overdriving amps and crowded, chatty clubs.
To watch Newsom alone onstage, spine curled forward and limbs folded around her guitar to nurture it one moment before pushing off of it with all her might the next, is to witness a private communion between an unflinching, unrelenting woman and her rock 'n' roll-loving god. To watch her is to glimpse the kind of greatness that won't be contained on these small stages for long, and to affirm the power that something as simple as an electric guitar and a lone, searching voice can wield over a congregation of concertgoers. Screw transcendence—it's a revelation.
Andrea Swensson is City Pages' music editor.
Dorothea TanningBy Leslie Adrienne Miller
Artist of the Year? How about Artist of the Century? Dorothea Tanning has my vote. At 101, she's just published her second volume of poems, Coming to That. The celebrated surrealist painter, whose work is represented in major international museum collections, has also designed costumes for Balanchine's ballets, worked in soft sculpture and printmaking, and authored several memoirs and a novel. Her 30-year marriage to Dadaist artist Max Ernst probably counts as significant artistic work as well. Self-described as "the oldest living emerging poet," Tanning published her first book of poems, Table of Content, at the age of 93.
Though most will remember Tanning the painter, someone who rubbed shoulders with Picasso, Orson Welles, Truman Capote, André Breton, and Joseph Cornell, readers should be prepared to find her poems memorable too. Lucid, funny, wise, full of sentiment without being sentimental, and highly visual without being arty, Coming to That is grounded in wistful views of her own advancing age, but Tanning also keeps her keen intellect and merry wit trained on the hazards that contemporary commercial culture present to the artistic imagination. In a Salon interview she advises, "Keep your eye on your inner world and keep away from ads and idiots and movie stars, except when you need amusement," advice echoed in her poem "All Hallows Eve": "don't take faucets for fountainheads." In "Artspeak" the poet muses that, "If Art would only talk it would, at last reveal/itself for what it is, what we all burn to know," but finally, Art speaks in a code, the alphabet, and requires human imagination to make something of it.
In poem after poem, Tanning sets us up for what appear to be straightforward narratives of daily life—a man running on a beach who stops for water, a woman taking a walk—but once the reader settles into the relative comfort of a familiar scene, Tanning shifts by increments into the realm of the surreal. The runner's dog ends up being interviewed by reporters. The woman taking a walk discovers the joys of her own personal "Kook" in "Interval With Kook."
If you've become disenchanted with all the difficulties, the do's and don'ts, isms and ists of contemporary American poetry, this little gem of a book is for you. You could give it to your hip grandmother or your punked-out teenager, and both should find much to admire. A Peruvian penis, "a crumb tattoo on midnight's/naked back," or the "beautiful paralytics" of trees in an urban park—Tanning's images are delivered with "my bedrock/insouciance," and a childlike plainness that belies the poems' open-eyed awareness of the inevitable.
Leslie Adrienne Miller (www.lesliemillerpoet.com) is the author of six collections of poems, including Y, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2012, and The Resurrection Trade. She teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri SandsBy Linda Shapiro
More than a couple of talented artists who happen to be life and artistic partners, Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands are dancers with a mission. When they combined their initials to form TU Dance in 2004, they were determined to create a company and school that reflected the increasing diversity of the Twin Cities' urban community. Both had performed with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, which presents the African-American experience through rigorous, virtuosic dance. Toni and Uri envisioned a hub for dance in St. Paul that offered intensive classes and programs for everyone from kids to professionals.
Over the past year they have worked to transform an old carpentry shop in St. Paul into a state-of-the-art dance center, which opened its doors in August. Toni, who directs the programming, organized a workshop for preteens and teens that offered experiences in everything from ballet to Afro-Brazilian dance.
Under the couple's scrupulous direction the company has evolved into a crack ensemble that animates Uri's complex, multilingual choreography, a meld of ballet, modern, African, and street dance elements. Toni and Uri work as a team: Uri creates the dances, while Toni translates his highly idiosyncratic moves to the dancers and directs rehearsals. Individually and collectively, Uri, Toni, and the dancers have earned numerous awards, attracting national attention and fanatically loyal audiences. Their Ordway concert last May was the first dance event to sell out that 1,900-seat house.
This year TU Dance premiered two major works of startling emotional power. With Love, inspired by the depictions of life and dance in the paintings of African-American artist Ernie Barnes, revealed both the ebullient energy and the dark underside of Barnes's urban scenes. And in A Subconscious Plastic Nowhere, nine dancers inhabited fluid states—animal, metaphysical, mythical—with feral intensity. In its relatively short life, TU Dance has managed to achieve artistic success, popular acclaim, and broad reach in the community.
Linda Shapiro is a Minneapolis writer and co-directed New Dance Ensemble from 1981 to 1994.
Jan Xylander/Natasha PestichBy Andy Sturdevant
Jan Xylander is a young painter and performance artist who splits his time between urban Minnesota and the state's northern woods. In his short career he has exhibited work all over the country, in venues as diverse as California's Davis Art Alliance and the Vacant Lot in suburban Chicago. He's collaborated with national design cooperatives such as Parallelogram Press. Perhaps you've seen the results of these print collaborations in the recent show The Opening Act: A Survey of Jan Xylander Exhibition Posters at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Jan Xylander and his exhibition posters also happen to be the wholly fictional creation of Minneapolis printmaker Natasha Pestich. Xylander, the names of his collaborators, even the exhibition venues and their addresses: all works of fiction, created by Pestich and existing only on a few dozen beautifully screenprinted posters.
This might seem irritatingly precious if Pestich was merely a gifted stylist with a well-developed sense of mimicry. While she does have a gift for capturing the look and language of the sort of ephemeral exhibition artwork that decorates apartments, telephone poles, and art department bulletin boards all over America (in particular, her imagined exhibition titles like Strategies for Forgetting, On the Cusp of the Miraculous, and Bred in Captivity are dead on), Pestich is, more importantly, adept at using these tools to spin a multifaceted, engrossing story.
Though we never actually see a portrait of Xylander or even any of his paintings in these printed works, we feel we get to know him and his work quite well. Xylander seems prolific and funny, but a serious agoraphobe. He appears to be obsessed with bucolic imagery and often retreats into an inscrutable, private mythology of mazes, rabbits, and snow. A few of the posters, purported to be created around 2010, darkly hint at "late work."
What makes Xylander unique from the fictional creations of many visual artists is that he isn't really an alter ego for Pestich. She's not hiding behind him to tell a thinly veiled autobiographic story, or using him as a mouthpiece. She's simply using her considerable visual talents to spin a story about the life of an artist, told so convincingly we truly want to believe it.
Andy Sturdevant is a Minneapolis artist and writer. He is also the host of Salon Saloon, a live artists' talk show held at the Bryant-Lake Bowl every fourth Tuesday of the month.
Louis C.K.By Jeff Kamin
They say every joke has an element of truth, which is partially why it's funny. Louis C.K. gave up trying to be funny and decided to tell the truth. He routinely discarded all of his best old material, consistently writing and performing an entire new hour of comedy. And he ended up becoming the funniest and most prolific standup comic of the past few years.
The 44-year-old divorced father of two girls has been called a comic's comic. There's been a pop culture debate about whether TV has been better than movies lately. C.K. seems to straddle a fine line between both, making what is essentially a 20-minute short film for each episode of his F/X show Louie without any network notes or interference. The shows aren't even all comedies. Some are downright sobering and frightening stories about issues such as bullies, suicide, war, and religion. C.K. stars, directs, writes, and edits on his own little Macbook, a perfect inspiration in our Hulu age.
He makes it look so real, with no pretense of fame or any outward act. When he says he expects to have only another year or two of this intense fame and go back to doing just standup till he dies, you almost believe it. "Stop tweeting and texting and live your lives," he said in his recent show Live at the Beacon Theater, which he sells as a download on his own website. C.K. reminds us of the wonder of technology and modern life: how a message on our phones goes into outer space, hits a satellite, and comes back to your friend's phone in two seconds, and we can't even be impressed or amazed anymore. He's just a guy being honest about getting older and trying to live a better life. He's the cranky dad whose rants you actually want to listen to. In a world in which comedy may be the least respected king of media, Louis C.K. deserves recognition for telling universal truths that inspire you to live your life.
Jeff Kamin moderates and produces Books & Bars (BooksandBars.com), an open book club show in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Chanhassen that combines literary discussions with liberal drinking. He's also a senior producer of performance programs at Minnesota Public Radio and trivia host of Name That Tune.
John HawkesBy Ella Taylor
Gaunt and taut as a high wire, the terrific actor John Hawkes seems built for indie-pic villainy. Which may be why most moviegoers recognize him as the meth addict Teardrop in last year's Winter's Bone rather than, say, the appealingly eccentric love interest in Miranda July's 2005 Me and You and Everyone We Know, or as the pioneering Jewish merchant Sol Star on the HBO television series Deadwood.
Hawkes's range is just as broad and deep within every character he plays. The actor does more with pent-up intensity than almost any other performer I can think of. Uncle Teardrop doesn't say much—mostly he glowers in threatening profile, a coiled cobra waiting to rear up and bite. Watch him carefully, though, and you see a lost cause rallying his inner prodigal to honor his flawed brother's memory by helping his niece (Jennifer Lawrence) save her family, and staying the course thereafter.
In Sean Durkin's bracing new indie Martha Marcy May Marlene, Hawkes calls on still more subtle variations—as well as his talent as a musician—to play a cult leader who bullies, cajoles, and seduces Elizabeth Olsen's runaway into a hapless wreck long after she seems to have broken free of his dominion. Patrick may be a marginal drifter with little purchase on the world outside his tiny rural dictatorship in upstate New York. Inside, he rules with a lethally mercurial blend of fatherly tenderness, sexual predation, and naked threat that commands absolute fealty from his vulnerable disciples—or else. Oozing insidious charisma, Hawkes's Patrick is every parent's worst nightmare, and all the more terrifying because the actor brilliantly plays him not as a cynical manipulator but something far more appalling—an absolute believer in his own depraved propaganda.
Ella Taylor is a Los Angeles-based critic for NPR.org who also teaches in the School of Cinema at the University of Southern California. She is a frequent contributor to City Pages.
Bethany LarsonBy Regan Smith
You know that moment in a really great song when the lead singer's voice absolutely rips through the space around it, reaching the exact right pitch at the exact right volume for exactly the right amount of time? That moment you listen to over and over again, that you will sit through five minutes of shitty distortion and mumbled lyrics for because it's just that damn satisfying?
Local songstress Bethany Larson takes that moment, makes it her bitch, then sends it home with a care package of flowers, honey, and maybe a complimentary loofah the next morning.
Hailing from Austin, Minnesota, 26-year-old Larson is the daughter of a Baptist minister who began singing with her church choir when she was five, picked up guitar at 15, and studied classical voice at Northwestern College in Roseville. Unlike many of her local female singer-songwriter counterparts, Larson's gospel-tinged vocals allow her to avoid the "yodel-y girl with a ukulele" pigeonhole, earning comparisons to Neko Case and Ella Fitzgerald. She has the type of voice that leaves you feeling boozy, charmed, and a little bit envious, wondering what the hell it would be like to open your mouth and have that come out.
When We Reach the City, Larson's first full-length release with new backing band the Bees Knees, is an alt-country heartbreak album infused with sophistication and a strangely bouncy sadness. It's 36 minutes of soulful southern twang that leave you wanting 40 more. But for all the album's merit, it's clear that When We Reach the City is just the beginning for this why-are-they-still-a-secret local band. Bethany Larson and her Bees Knees are not even close to their pinnacle, and it's that seductive promise of what's ahead that makes them just as deserving of recognition as everything they've accomplished thus far.
Regan Smith is co-founder and editorial director of Paper Darts Magazine. She lives and works in Minneapolis as a freelance writer and project assistant for Works Progress, an artist-led public design studio.
Marc Bamuthi JosephBy Kyle "Guante" Tran Myhre
When grappling with the relationship between art and community, a lot of people know how to speak the language. We like projects that "promote social justice," or "reach out to underserved communities," or can effectively use whatever buzzword is fashionable during a given grant cycle. As any poet can tell you, however, there's a big difference between understanding abstract ideas on an intellectual level and making those ideas come alive in concrete, intentional, substantive ways.
Oakland's Marc Bamuthi Joseph is one of the leading performance artists in the country. His work, which mixes spoken word, dance, and theater into something that is at once approachable and avant-garde, isn't afraid to tackle big questions: The break/s, the full-length piece he performed at the Walker Art Center back in 2008, is a daring, one-of-a-kind exploration of hip hop, culture, and identity that never lets anyone—artist, listener, or bystander—off the hook. We all have a role to play, whether we know it or not.
And it is this focus on community that makes Bamuthi stand out. I know a lot of smart, talented artists; I know very few, however, who are as skilled as Bamuthi in using their art as an entry point to engage in real, sustainable community activism. He returned to the Twin Cities this past August to explore the question "What sustains life in our community?" with local activists and to plant the seeds for a Twin Cities installment of Life Is Living, a traveling festival that strives to make the connections between sustainability, intergenerational health, youth empowerment, the urban arts, and more.
It's an important juxtaposition of issues and ideas, especially when environmental activism, health advocacy, and even the arts are so often perceived as the exclusive domain of well-to-do white people. Bamuthi challenges that notion in a way that, like his art, is both inspiring and accessible, profoundly ambitious and resolutely down-to-earth. He'll be back in March to continue to build with this community, and to present his new show, red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb), at the Walker.
Guante is a hip-hop artist, spoken-word poet, activist, and educator in Minneapolis.
Carrie BrownsteinBy Jim Brunzell III
You couldn't wander near a radio in 2011 without hearing female singers such as Adele, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Florence + the Machine, and Katy Perry in the background, but none of their voices matched Wild Flag's Carrie Brownstein's wonderful growling vocals.
Brownstein was part of female "riot grrrl" trio Sleater-Kinney, who broke up in 2006, but in 2011 two of its members, guitarist-singer Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss, teamed up with guitarist-singer Mary Timony (Helium) and keyboardist Rebecca Cole (the Minders) to create the female foursome Wild Flag.
Brownstein hadn't performed music in years, but for her fans the five-year wait has been handsomely rewarded with Wild Flag's self-titled album debut, released this past September. The album is now starting to show up on music critics' best-of-the-year list. The first single, "Glass Tambourine," has been playing frequently on MPR's 89.3 the Current since its release.
Wild Flag wasn't the only way we heard from Brownstein in 2011. She also dabbled in acting, playing an inspiring reality star in the little-seen independent dramedy Some Days Are Better Than Others. And along with Saturday Night Live regular Fred Armisen, she also co-created and co-starred on the IFC comedy series Portlandia. The first season of Portlandia was recently released on DVD, and the second season will premiere January 6. Brownstein and Armisen will be taking Portlandia on the road for a seven-city tour, though unfortunately not to the Twin Cities.
Brownstein was in town, though, when Wild Flag kicked off their official first U.S. tour in Minneapolis at the Varsity Theater in October. There she told a mostly Gen-X crowd, "There's really no better place to start a tour than Minneapolis." Moments later Brownstein, known for wildly energetic movements onstage, kicked her right leg in the air, walked up to the microphone, and began her signature delivery of angst, sounding straight out of her Sleater-Kinney days circa 1997. Rock 'n' roll fans have missed her stage enthusiasm and guitar shredding dearly and desperately.
Jim Brunzell III is the director of programming for the film series Sound Unseen, the creator of "The Defenders" series at the Trylon microcinema, and a writer on film for Twin Cities Daily Planet.
Kenna-Camara CottmanBy Caroline Palmer
Ubiquity is not a qualification for Artists of the Year, nor is it proof that the honor is deserved. But Kenna-Camara Cottman, a choreographer and educator with her own dance company, Voice of Culture Drum and Dance, not only made her striking presence known in several venues over the past 12 months, she did so in memorable ways. Whether bringing hip hop to James Sewell Ballet, performing in Ananya Dance Theatre's powerful Tushaanal: Fires of Dry Grass, or graciously hosting the Minnesota Sage Awards for Dance, Cottman proved time and again that she is a creative force who rigorously challenges expectations, starting with her own.
Cottman made her strongest impression in the Walker Art Center's Momentum series at the Southern Theater this summer. Her Shared Language was the physical embodiment of a rich internal dialogue driven by her personal relationship to African-American and West African cultures. The work unfolded in a casual, rehearsal-like setting, but it poignantly revealed Cottman's deep-seated restlessness and questioning—she knows identity is not determined by a simple equation of geography plus history plus heritage. There's something more, but it's intangible, rooted in the heart and soul. Cottman didn't need to offer any resolution to that idea, just the possibility of more exploration.
Cottman also hinted at provocative new directions for her work with KATE AN OYTE in the Choreographer's Evening at the Walker in November. Drawing inspiration from the Black Greek organizations known as the Divine Nine, in just a few short minutes Cottman summoned images of discipline and pride but also hinted at a more troubling legacy as well, one that may reveal itself with time if she expands on the themes. As with Shared Language, Cottman showed us that she is engaged in a fascinating dialogue with herself, her audience, her community, her world. Hopefully she will continue to share these conversations onstage. As audience members, we're lucky to be a part of them.
Caroline Palmer is a freelance dance writer and attorney living in Minneapolis.
Lynda BarryBy Mark Ehling
I've always loved artists who seem like ambassadors to the non-art world. Ed Emberley, the master of the stick-figure instructional book, and sculptor Alexander Calder, a grown man playing ringmaster in his miniature circus, are two who come to mind. I suppose what I'm describing, though, is less of an ambassador and more of a child at heart—someone unafraid of play.
Lynda Barry is such an artist. The style and subject matter of her comics alone might prove that claim (her most popular works, such as Ernie Pook's Comeek, are drawn with "scratchy" lines and deal almost exclusively with the inner lives of children), but in the last few years she's slowly transformed herself into a missionary for creative play. Her two recent memoir/how-to books, What It Is and Picture This, somehow manage to talk about art while existing as art: Nearly every page is a collage of brushwork, found text, photos, and doodles. Her thoughts and dictums ("Be a copy cat," "Let a line lead us along itself") are jammed against more open-ended questions ("What is the difference between lying and pretending?"), and all these statements are warped by strange images in the margins: defaced yearbook photos, drawings of anglerfish, and vintage ads for "The Dramatic Story of Canning and Can Making." The result is a work that feels like real consciousness: messy, associative, and colored with emotion.
One of Barry's main points is that by keeping our bodies in motion—essentially, doodling—we calm our minds and allow for deep play. In this space, associations come alive, and traditional categories, "good vs. bad" or "art vs. essay," fall away. This is probably the real payoff: Barry helps art escape the Museum of Holy Artifacts and puts it back into circulation as the basic human activity it is.
Mark Ehling is a writer and teacher living in Minneapolis.
Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDsBy Jeff Gage
To say that Merrill Garbus is the driving force behind her band, tUnE-yArDs, is an understatement. She almost single-handedly assembles her songs, piece by piece, right in front of her audience. Ukele, drums, and vocals get looped into frenzied arrangements that burst and bounce from idea to idea—one minute a soft folk song, the next a raucous Afrobeat jam.
Garbus, a former playwright and puppeteer who once lived in a Montreal artist commune, thrives on challenging her audience, right down to the spelling of her band name and album titles. That attribute infuses all her work with a joyful, childlike exuberance. But for all her experimental tendencies, Garbus's strongest, most expressive instrument is remarkably simple: her voice. Blessed with a raw gift of stunning range, she uses it with gusto, exploring everything from the most delicate whispers to full-throated wails with confidence and ease.
Below tUnE-yArDs' celebratory surface, a palpable tension binds the music together. Garbus is adept at giving a voice to those whose own voices are stifled, and she's fearless about tackling the injustices she sees. Her latest album, WHOKILL, opens with a provocation, riffing on "My Country 'Tis of Thee" while asking, "Why do you have something/When others have nothing?" By the closing track, "Killa," Garbus doesn't mince her words: "I'm a new kind of woman," she declares. "I'm a don't-take-shit-from-you kind of woman."
Yet what endears Garbus the most is her compassion. She inhabits her characters and their stories, inspired by a deep empathy and boundless imagination. Whether her characters daydream about making love to a police officer or smack-talk a wannabe "Gangsta," she never takes herself too seriously, approaching her subjects with warmth and humor. And when Garbus turns her thoughts inward, she's even more effective. "Powa," little more than a slowly unfurling rock riff, is one of the year's tenderest love songs—unguarded, uncomplicated, and exquisitely beautiful.
Jeff Gage is City Pages' editorial administrator and a regular contributor of music criticism and profiles.
Danny BrownBy Ray Cummings
Some 13 songs deep into XXX (Fool's Gold), his breakthrough mix tape, Danny Brown has an important question he needs you to answer. Thus far, the Detroit MC has been up to his eyeballs in epic-fail desperation and decadent depravity, all half-believed bravado and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas bacchanal. In these initial 33 minutes, Brown—a skinny-jeans wearing ex-con who raps in a strangulated, twitchy yelp that suggests the onset of hysterics or a guttural growl—has usurped Lil Wayne as his chosen genre's cunnilingus enthusiast, extolled protein shakes, identified himself as both "the Adderall admiral" and "Wes Craven with X cravings," and artfully Pac-Man'd through a laundry list of famous drug casualties.
Then, the brass-infused, methadone warmth of "DNA" washing around his ankles, ("bitches snortin' coke off each other's titties/with rolled fifties"), Brown breaks the fourth wall, and asks: "It's that XXX shit, nigga, how you feel?" It's something to think about. How do you feel about the past 33 minutes, the diaristic diarrhea, the excess, Brown himself? Brown could be alluding to the fact that at 30, he's way too old for this shit, but he's cleverer than that, and there's more happening here. At that moment, when it becomes apparent that the preceding nihilistic train wreck was a feint to command your attention, and that Brown knows that you know that he has you eating out of his scabbed palms, that's when XXX pivots, plunging into the real-talk nightmares the rapper grew up living: territorial gang beatings and broad-daylight murders no one sees ("ESNESW"), promising young lives swept away in narcotic undertows ("Nosebleeds," "Party All the Time"), the sort of post-'70s urban blight familiar to anybody who's spent time in economically emaciated cities ("Fields"). "Scrap or Die" manages the neat trick of framing scavenging abandoned buildings for precious metals as both low-rent caper banger and 8-bit first-person video game—viscous synthesizer bleeps and blips recalling lost Super Mario Brothers weekends even as they underline the inescapable voyeuristic charge street rap carries for most of its rarely chastened listeners, who might do well to take a look in the mirror.
Ray Cummings writes regularly for City Pages' music section. He lives in Round Rock, Texas, and is the author of two books of poetry, Assembling the Lord and Crucial Sprawl, available from Twentythreebooks.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.