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. It goes to show how Garbus’ music-without-borders approach carves out a niche for itself, creating something out of unlikely and improbable combinations that could only come from a singular imagination.
With a crisper, clearer production that helps it to stand out, w h o k i l l is, almost literally speaking, tUnE-yArDs’ breakthrough: This latest effort finds Garbus busting out of the claustrophobic confines of tUnE-yArDs’ resourceful, homemade debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, with a fuller, more dynamic sound that accentuates how she can hit the highs, the lows, and all the emotional registers in between. While that might seem to describe an album that’s all over the place, there’s still something consistent, coherent, and unified about w h o k i l l, with Garbus like a steadying force in the eye of the storm. The album’s first single, “Bizness”, offers a good sampling of all that the new-and-improved tUnE-yArDs are capable of, mixing and matching a little riff that recalls Konono No. 1’s patented likembe thumb-piano patterns, crisp jazz percussion, and Garbus’ androgynous vocals at their fiercest. Better yet, “Gangsta” one-ups the fevered pitch that “Bizness” hits, especially when it reaches a frenzied state in a cacophonous symphony of skronky brass, clattering beats, and melodic bass. There, Garbus is a kindred soul of Björk’s, if not so much in sound as in spirit, rallying an army of me all her own.
As back-asswards as it might seem, the bigger canvas that Garbus has to work with on w h o k i l l actually brings out the intimacy and immediacy of her one-of-a-kind music, using all the tools at her disposal to make her personal vision seem all the more vivid and vibrant. The best point of comparison for tUnE-yArDs might be one-time tourmates Dirty Projectors, whose world-influenced approach might provide the closest thing to a touchstone to what Garbus is doing: But while Dirty Projectors are more heavy on affect in their pursuit of pop perfection, tUnE-yArDs are more about expressing unbridled feeling and getting the music to capture it. The slow-burning “Powa” takes time to pick up momentum, but it’s remarkably contemplative and harrowing when it does, as Garbus’ voice moves from a whisper to a growl to reflect the inner turmoil and self-esteem issues that are the baggage of dysfunctional relationships (“Mirror, mirror on the wall / Do I see my face at all?”). On the other end of the emotional spectrum, “Wooly Wolly Gong” gives Garbus all the space she needs to find peace, as her versatile voice almost seems to channel Suzanne Vega on a lullaby that’s only embellished by quiet guitar and sparse percussion. So even if Garbus’ musical fireworks are what you notice first, there’s always something substantial to her idiosyncratic style.
And that goes double for the social consciousness tUnE-yArDs display on w h o k i l l — when they say the personal is political, that certainly applies to Garbus’ songs, which ponder bigger issues without being preachy or pretentious. As suggested by the title, violence is a running theme on the album, which the eerie psychodrama of “Riotriot” treats in ways that are messily Freudian (“You came to put handcuffs on my brother / Down in the alley way / I dreamt of making love to you”) and philosophically profound (“There is a freedom in violence I don’t understand”). Even more compelling is the briskly paced “Doorstep”, which seems pretty and ethereal enough to float over your head, except that its first lines cut to the chase about police brutality –“Policeman shot my baby as he crossed over my doorstep.” Finding strength in her own voice, no matter how resigned she may be about what’s happening around her, Garbus speaks truth to power later on the track when she croons as soulfully as she can, “Well, I tried so hard to be a peaceful, loving woman.”
Ultimately, it’s that faith the Merrill Garbus finds in herself that comes through most powerfully on w h o k i l l, with the payoff coming on the closing track “Killa”, when she boasts with rap braggadocio, “I’m a new kinda woman / I’m a new kinda woman / I’m a don’t take shit from you kinda woman,” to a bright, funky bassline. Truer words were never uttered to describe tUnE-yArDs, though if you didn’t know that before you got to the end of w h o k i l l, you weren’t listening closely enough to it.