Sketchy (4AD/Remote Control)
This funk is angled, this dance is bent into some odd shapes, this pop is freaky – and then there’s something so plainly attractive you almost stop to check for the coming trap. But the messages – of empowerment, self-awareness, resistance, anger, action, agitation and revolution – are crystal clear. “We all have doubts/We all have rage,” we’re told in Hold Yourself.
So, there is nothing sketchy about Sketchy: this is a full body experience which says bring your mind with you. And you’ll need your mind at first to get a handle on the rhythms of the songs Merrill Garbus and co-producer/absolutely crucial bassplayer Nate Brenner, bring to the table.
They jumble sometimes: Homewrecker takes a falling-down-the-stairs clatter and catches on the way down both marching trolls and church choir; Make It Right brings Hi Studios’ smooth shapes to a party where the rest of the band is playing Twister; Silence pt 1, changes its position so that the light hits art funk one second, almost regulation soul the next, and then a moment when it could well be Ann Peebles singing Laurie Anderson.
They curve at times: Hypnotized moves almost languidly around its jazz-funk leaning bass, the punctuations of percussion pitched to keep you from completely losing yourself; Hold Yourself has Brenner nimbly moving beneath a gospel call and response for a song more likely to draw from mid-‘90s Bristol than mid-‘50s Atlanta, and a more secular saxophone that devolves – or deconstructs - by song’s end.
They prod at other times: Under Your Lip punches with sharp drum tones and Nowhere Man goes further, backing it up with a New Orleans second line groove coming hard on the heels; Sometime throws its arms and head around like a dancer being worked on strings from above.
And then My Neighbor veers between late night caress and heavy-dragging follow-through as a lead-in to Be Not Afraid closing the album with a mix of threat and seduction, looped drums and slow melody, before horror show intimations appear in the sky above.
If you thought 2018’s excellent I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life was a spiky disco ball, this will bring spikes to the walls and a slippery slide above. You will have fun, but you may not know where you will finish.
Likewise, if you thought that last record was taking you into tricky, and fascinating, territory lyrically, Sketchy will please you even more. Yes, she says that “I am but one drop in the ocean/One toe in the ground/One fist of many fingers” but by album’s end you will find that Garbus wasn’t kidding when, in Silence pt 1, she says “I spread my roots into all your limbs/And my voice all around you”.
That’s because she captures a lot of what we’re struggling to say ourselves at the moment on matters climatic, sexual, racial or day-to-day existential. Or maybe things we are scared to say, like in Hold Yourself again where after reviewing parental lies and the damage around us all from them Garbus declares “Child, I won’t have you/I cannot have you … I cannot mend this/I have to hand this/I can’t pretend without a break in sight”.
In Sometime, Garbus even offers us some advice amidst the agitation: “Gotta go easy on yourself, take care of yourself/Cause we will look back on this time.” Survive first? Makes sense. And as we saw with her last album, which reflected a more tortuous time coming to some of these conclusions, she’s been here too.
That said, the stories told here are not always direct, but they are coming from “inside”, not from a disinterested observer or, worse still, some omniscient (male) commentator. Which, again, is more than reasonable. “Seems like Jesus and Dylan/Got the whole thing wrong/If you cannot hear a woman/Then how can you write her song?”
But if you’ve come this far and finding it interesting, I can tell you one secret: the angles of this music will grab you and fix you in first, and that alone will take you a long way to understanding.