Friday, August 19, 2011

Merrill Garbus's w h o k i l l is tuned to perfection

Is there still doubt that Merrill Garbus is one of the most unique and fascinating singers and writers out there? If so, then hopefully her second full length, w h o k i l l, will do much to displace that.
BiRd-BrAiNs, Garbus's first album under the moniker tUnE-yArDs, was a thought provoking collection of home recordings with dynamic arrangements and rather tinny audio quality. On w h o k i l l, she's gotten a big boost with the addition of bassist Nate Brenner, along with clearer audio quality, but the spirit is the same.

That she would choose to add a bassist says a great deal.  Garbus is a percussion and rhythm minded musician, and this philosophy lays the entire foundation for what goes on here.

Take a look at "Gangsta." It starts off with Garbus pounding a pair of large African drums, then an ear grabbing distorted bass enters the mix, and you have the basic beat which the rest of the song will play off of.

There is also a dash of world music aesthetic introduced via jazzy African horns, drums, and vocal arrangements which pop up periodically throughout the album.

Speaking of vocals - there's few who do it like Garbus, and it's a true spectacle.

Garbus is a intense performer with a powerful voice and style all her own. On stage, she can often be seen manning a ukelele or banging a giant tribal drum. She uses her voice not only for singing but also to create certain effects that fit with the music. Her voice can go from being rough, low pitched and manly to being airy and feminine and back again several times within a single verse or chorus.

By extension, there is quite a bit of musical ground that is covered on this record. "Es-so," which speaks of the pressures on women to stay physically fit, is a groovy tune with a slightly ominous feel.

"Powa" is a mellow, emotional tune about sexuality, while "Killa" boasts bonafide pop hooks and spotlights political braggadocio from Garbus that calls to mind Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.

But most chilling of all is the off kilter lullaby "Wooly Wolly Gong, which combines lo-fi acoustic guitar, Merrill's hushed vocals, and an eerie set of lyrics to create something both truly beautiful yet deeply unsettling.

Other highlights? Besides the whole disc? The rockin' "You Yes You," and the jazzy world fusion of "Riotriot" are also standouts.

And I would be remiss not to touch on Garbus's attitude and lyrics, which is also a key part of the tUnE-yArDs formula. I feel these capture her essence pretty well:

"There is a freedom in violence that I don't understand. And like I've never felt before."

"I'm a new kind of woman; I'm a new kind of woman. I'm a don't take shit from you kind of woman."

"Now that everything is gonna be okay/ now that everything is gonna be alright. What if baby I cannot see the sound/what if baby I cannot hear the light?"

There are several different levels of depth to the lyrics, which provides a welcome level of complexity. Most of the topics on the album deal with femininity, sexuality, or violence.

No question this is one of my favorite records of the year - Garbus's individuality and creative energy are second to none right now.

w h o k i l l reflects a refreshing and bold attitude from an emerging artist, who's here to let everyone know she's one of the most enterprising and unique voices you'll hear in 2011.

Sing it, sister.

Score: 93/100

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