w h o k i l l is the second outing for New England-er Merrill Garbus under the (child-like stylized) moniker tUnE-yArDs. Following up the debut album BiRd-BrAiNs was never going to be a simple flight of fancy for her; it was creative, hearty and gave us a teasingly small insight into what Garbus was able to accomplish with her voice. Yet with limited equipment at her disposal (the whole thing being recorded on just a handheld voice recorder) it never had the quality nor reached the standard it was evident Garbus could achieve. Well, within one listen of w h o k i l l, there is an unmistakable improvement, and what a delightfully polished improvement it is.
From the outset it’s obvious that this feat is by no means least due to the sensational voice which Merrill Garbus happens to possess. Contorting her vocal strings from androgenic rage to summery quaintness to animalistic chirps, occasionally all within a tracks-worth, searching for a modern comparison seems a desperately futile task. Tracks such as ‘Gangsta’ encapsulate this, beginning with an 808-esque tribal beat and a simple guitar hook then in fades the sounds of an ambulance siren, a raging alarm clock and a cuckoo bird all jostling harmonies with each other. But no, in fact it’s all Garbus’ voice looped and layered intricately to striking effect. With this blanketing of voices, Afro-drum beats and horns aplenty, this song just doesn’t let up and there is a shed-load going on in it. Almost too much. If you can cope with the clattering sonic bombardment present on ‘Gangsta’ then you’d be able to handle anything else w h o k i l l summons up with consummate ease and almost certain enchantment.
The first single from the LP ‘Bizness’ is a catchy-as-hell pop song that will rattle around your brain for days after hearing it. Lazily labeling it as simple pop music seems almost derogatory, yet attempting to pigeonhole this music under any distinct genre is like trying to class Sony as that company that make TVs. Yeah, she creates extraordinary sounding pop music, but she packs in around a dozen other styles with just as much passion and proficiency. The range of influences and sounds she encompasses are vast and varied; coming from ukulele-tinged folk, Afro-beat drumming, TV on the Radio-esque horns, lo-fi experimentalism, her ‘riot grrrl’ approach and so much more.
As far as lyrics go Garbus seems pretty hung up on violence, with song names like ‘Powa’, ‘Riotriot’ and ‘Killa’, it’s pretty hard to ignore .Yet without being brash or overbearing, the lyrics press questions upon the listener, leaving themselves open rather than being self-resolving or forceful. ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall/Can you see my face at all?’ she asks in ‘Powa’, in possibly the most prevalent voice a troubled self-esteem question could be asked. ‘Gangsta’ happens to repeatedly try and pry the answer to ‘What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a gangster?’ jesting at the notion of failing self-fulfilment.
Opening track ‘My Country’ begins with a woman’s voice uttering the words ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Merrill is performing’, well this could hardly pin the album down any better. Merrill Garbus puts her neck on the line here by creating ten shimmering tracks crammed with imagination, emotion and the eclectic personality essential to be able to pull something like this off. W h o k i l l is an endlessly energetic and entertaining album, and with it Merrill Garbus has produced one of the surprise packages of the year.
From Rich Flanagan.