Release Date: Apr 19, 2011
Record label: 4AD
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock
Grant me the admittedly dubious assumption that it makes sense to talk about “albums like w h o k i l l” and I’ll say the following: Reviewing albums like w h o k i l l makes me grateful to be writing about music at a time when any interested reader is empowered to seek out and experience the very songs I’m writing about before they even get to the bottom of this review. Were it not for that convenience, I’d face the impossible task of trying to describe what this latest batch of Tune-Yards songs sounds like. In attempting to do so, I’d inevitably come around to cataloguing the formidable range of genres and styles that vocalist/composer/multi-instrumentalist Merrill Garbus touches on, naturally taking due care to present you with appropriately discordant juxtapositions like “Afrobeat and punk” or “free jazz and R&B,” trying to recreate in my own writing some intimation of the album’s head-whirling compositional verve.
There are 10 songs on the second album by Oakland's Merrill Garbus, the 32-year-old singer who records as Tune-Yards. But it seems like there are 200: whokill overflows with hip-hop, reggae, Afrobeat and funky noise freakouts — plus ukulele riffs, fluttering doo-wop vocals and what sounds like a percussion orchestra composed of pots and pans. It all hangs together thanks to Garbus' voice, which slides seamlessly from Joplin-esque howls to delicate coos.
I wasn’t a true fan of Tune-Yards until I saw her live last year at Seattle’s Sasquatch Festival. The music went from being somewhat shallow avant-garde folk to something far more real, far more confident. Everything seemed brighter and bigger after that, and I gained a new appreciation for how she builds layers of vocals and drums upon one another.
BiRd-BrAiNs, the idiosyncratic, home-recorded debut by tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, stood way the hell out from the lo-fi pack in 2009 when it was released, exuding restless ambition and an individual sensibility even while much of indie rock settled for the lowest common denominator. Money earned licensing her music to Blackberry provided Garbus the resources to record w h o k i l l in the studio with Nate Brenner (her touring bassist and collaborator) and a band, offering cleaner sonics and a slightly fuller live band sound. Rock critics typically reward the migration of a lo-fi artist to the studio, hearing in it increasing confidence and maturity.
Every now and then, a record comes along so good it makes you want to revisit an artist's back catalogue to see if you missed anything first time round. Two Dancers by Wild Beasts and The Horrors' Primary Colours are two recent examples that spring to mind. Then of course there are records by artists whose name has had little bearing or significance in the past, yet thanks to the CD that's spent literally weeks on repeat play at every given opportunity, it has become something of an obsession in acquiring their entire repertoire.
The stylization of the name tUnE-yArDs in print is a bit off-putting, but it at least gives people fair warning: This is not an act with any interest in politely conforming to expectations. tUnE-yArDs is the music project of Merrill Garbus, a songwriter, vocalist, percussionist, and ukulele player who has fused elements of acoustic folk, R&B, funk, Afro-pop, and rock into a bold, uncompromising hybrid all her own. Garbus is blessed with an extraordinary voice, and she wields it with great confidence, always coming off in total control of her phrasing while seeming totally uninhibited in her expression.
Merill Garbus' home-made patchwork of recordings and loops was so crucial to the success of her first tUnE-yArDs album, Bird Brains, that it seemed like lo-fi sounds were integral to her style. However, she recorded the songs that became W H O K I L L in a professional studio with an engineer and a crew of musicians, and the results are not only as vital and distinctive as what came before, they find Garbus coming into her own. Instead of confining herself to conventionally nice-sounding arrangements and techniques, Garbus sounds like a kid in a candy store, exhilarated by all the possibilities afforded to her.
Progress is a funny thing. It’s traditional for indie bands to follow their first colourless albums with one slate-grey record after another, only this time around sounding much bigger and more like [a]U2[/a]. For this they are inevitably hailed for their – ugh – ‘maturity’. Maturity ….
Of all the singular descriptions you could attach to Merrill Garbus’ Tune-Yards project—feminist indie pop, lo-fi, African juju reinterpretation, post-singer songwriter, self-confessional, experimental uke-pop—none of them seem particularly adequate. It’s because, apart from a lot of the bands working in the indie paradigm right now, Tune-Yards is one of the few without any clear antecedents, and none of those things entirely encapsulates Tune-Yards' unique sound. You can’t say Tune-Yards has any clear influences, and there’s no easy “band X meets band Y” log line here.
Whatever lines and boundaries between musical styles might be left, it’s likely that tUnE-yArDs’ genre-hopping, gender-bending one-woman-band Merrill Garbus has already crossed them. Lo-fi folk, avant-jazz instrumentation, dubby funk beats, Afropop shimmy, soulful R&B vocals, hip-hop attitude, riot grrrl politicking—they’re all present and accounted for in Garbus’ seemingly bottomless bag of tricks. Indeed, Garbus puts you on notice that she pushing the limits right from the beginning of tUnE-yArDs’ compelling sophomore effort w h o k i l l on the opener “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, which serves both as a pledge of allegiance to her hybrid aesthetic and as a preface of things to come: Taking its patriotic namesake and twisting it into “The National Anthem”—just Radiohead’s version—Garbus transforms what’s so familiar that it’s etched into the memory of every schoolchild into improvisational pop experimentation, freestyling on lines known by heart and adorning them with what sounds like a kazoo refrain, freaked-out horns, and bottom-heavy rhythms.
There is a wonderful moment in Killa, the closing track on Whokill, when Merrill Garbus carelessly raps: "I'm a new kinda woman/ I'm a lemon not a black-and-blue kinda woman." The line crystallises the mood of her second album as Tune-Yards: it's tart, bright, forthright; fiercely feminist in outlook; utterly self-possessed. And whereas the musical and lyrical boldness of her 2009 debut, Bird-Brains, was a little muted by her homespun recording techniques, here every fragmenting note and confrontational idea is exhilaratingly crisp. My Country questions the equality of the American dream to blasts of saxophone and squelching synths.
TUNE-YARDS play the Horseshoe May 12. See listing. Rating: NNNN Merrill Garbus's first album took a bit of time to grow on us, only really clicking once we caught the Tune-Yards experience live. While we respected the reasoning behind her lo-fi DIY approach, her debut doesn't even begin to approximate how impressively full and dynamic she sounds onstage, even when she's just performing as a duo.
Alternating capitalization and lines such as “Should have just stayed at home, when a girl feels so alone” instantly recall the good old days of AOL Instant Messenger: middle school drama queens with screen-names spelled obnoxiously, whining about their mundane suburban lives riddled with frivolous drama. Fortunately, the case with tUnE-yArDs and the track “Fiya” from which those words are taken can’t be more different than pre-teen woes: Merrill Garbus’ funkily formatted project and her 2009 debut BiRd-BrAiNs are emotionally and sonically complex, rich in experimentation and soul, accented with sunshiny melodies. Looped ukulele ditties and vocal tracks alongside street noise and sporadic percussion all pieced together by hand with basic software formed that year’s shining example of the glory of the DIY aesthetic with BiRd-BrAiNs, as Garbus had meticulously placed each screech, clatter, and seemingly out-of-place drum bit herself– a true labor of love.
The spirit of Nina Simone is alive and well on Merrill Garbus' second album. Chances are hers isn't a conscious revival, but the Oakland, Calif., multi-instrumentalist has the lioness in her soulful voice and loops it with inventive results. Whokill follows Garbus' self-recorded 2009 debut, Bird-Brains, by shifting focus to a woman's view of violence, whether mimicking the siren of "Gangsta" and/or howling, "There is a freedom in violence that I don't understand" on "Riotriot." The head-bob of "Es-so," dubby doo-wop of "Doorstep," and Afro-pop of "Bizness" demonstrate an ease with experimental instrumentation, drums, bass, sax, and ukulele skipping in tandem with her rubber-band vox.
Yes, the name looks absurd. That’s because this is a soundtrack to the theatre of the absurd. The calculated cacophony of Oakland songstress and producer Merill Garbus is some of the most oddly attractive yet puzzling music I’ve heard recently. No wave / post-punk / indie / dance pop that Laurie Anderson and the ghost of John Cage would drunkenly dance to.
CAM’RON & VADO “Gunz N’ Butta” (E1). JIM JONES.
Minimalist brutality meets rich arrangements on Merrill Garbus’ second album. Martin Longley 2011 New England-born and Oakland-based artist Merrill Garbus enjoys making music on her own. Well, almost. Shunning old-school studio sessions, she embraces her Californian bedroom's hard drive splicing tools.