It’s nearly impossible for anyone who has seen tUnE-yArDs perform in concert to talk about her recorded work without at least a reference to her live show. On stage, Merrill Garbus is a vision, transfixing in her intensity. She is a momentary contradiction, she is Jekyll and Hyde performing live for one night only. One second, she’s a maelstrom of fiery energy, bellowing and shouting without barriers or restraint; the next second, she is modest, thoughtful, and borderline bashful. A tUnE-yArDs performance is, to say the least, captivating.
tUnE-yArDs’ debut album, BiRd-BrAiNs, captured that passion in fits and starts. It is an album that you grow to love for its rusty spots as much for the well polished ones – an album that sounds less like something spit out by a computer and more like the type of worn out cassette you’d find in a dollar bin at a garage sale and cherish as if it were gold. Still, it doesn’t always hit the nail on the head – the lo-fi sonics don’t allow for those piercing yelps to jump off the tracks, the rich floor tom and thumping bass of tUnE-yArDs’ live performance are all but missing. BiRd-BrAiNs has charm and charisma in buckets. It lacks power.
W H O K I L L, Garbus’ second release, has power – indeed, it has “Powa” – thanks to a new studio setting and a full-bodied sound that brings tUnE-yArDs’ live dynamic onto wax for the first time. In comparison to BiRd-BrAiNs, it is a revelation. It brings presence to tUnE-yArDs’ recorded work. That’s not to say that tUnE-yArDs is no longer a lo-fi band; this album is more sonically chaotic than most studio albums you’ll hear, and there are moments of gritty granularity that push into the lo-fi category – the looping wails on “Gangsta,” the opening of “My Country,” the latter-half cacophony of “Riotriot”. Still, those moments are splashes of texture on the album, just one square on this quilt. The story of W H O K I L L only includes a chapter or two on tUnE-yArDs’ sonic shift; there’s an unbelievable amount to unpack here.
Before we get into unpacking any of that serious business, let’s back up and talk about the most important thing about this album, the thing that makes it one of the best released so far this year. This album is amazingly fun. It’s a joyous album that doesn’t hold back, as if Garbus and her co-conspirators relish the simple ability to create, create, create. Complex and introspective, W H O K I L L explores highs and lows with a high powered beam – it turns over stones that, frankly, are being left undisturbed by the vast majority of artists out there. But it manages to do so with such a deft hand that it nearly goes unnoticed amid forty plus minutes of enjoyable and innovative music.
Much of W H O K I L L’s light-hearted yet expansive reach is a byproduct of Garbus’ phenomenally flighty voice. From squeaks and squawks to beautiful runs and jumps, Garbus’ pipes display a remarkable range. She’s not always pitch perfect, but those imperfections seem intentional, as if to show off that these chords are all natural, baby. As she has for years in her live show, Garbus uses her voice as an instrument on tunes like “Bizness” and “My Country,” evoking aural Dirty Projectors analogies. Her most impressive vocal performance comes on “You Yes You,” wherein she utilizes every facet of her voice, from top to bottom, in juxtaposition and succession. The song, unsurprisingly, is among the album’s many highlights.
Those vocals, and the presence given to them by W H O K I L L’s production, carry messages that are about as simple as tUnE-yArDs’ sound; which is to say, the themes on this sucker are pretty complex too. Opening track “My Country” struggles with American privilege – “When they have nothing, why do you have something?” and “We can’t all have it, but what am I supposed to say to those other guys?” It’s a heady start to the album, and one that follows in the footsteps of BiRd-BrAiNs’ “Hatari.” Speaking to the Village Voice last year, Garbus – who spent time in Africa and has publicly noted the fine line between internalization and appropriation of African rhythms – outlined the questions and purpose voiced on W H O K I L L’s opening salvo: “If I’m at a privileged place where, God forbid, I start making money with music, that gives me a power, a great power, and part of that power is to use it to bring African musicians over here, to collaborate with African musicians. But mostly, it begins with a really important dialogue.”
That dialogue continues on different topics as the album progresses, digging into self consciousness and body issues on “Es-so,” sexual fantasy in the face of police violence on “Riotriot,” and police brutality of a significantly less appealing nature on “Doorstep.” “Gangsta” touches on the topics of race and socioeconomics with a what-are-you-gonna-do attitude, while “Killa” talks gender and race with a confident self-awareness reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge.” But throughout these various ruminations on life and its tribulations, Garbus’ lyrics retain their nuance, avoiding the pitfalls of painting topics in black and white. On “Riotriot,” it comes in the form of a full-voiced proclamation: “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand – that I’ve never felt before.” Garbus, a graduate of Smith College, is no stranger to complicated discussions of race, gender, class. That she lets those flags fly freely on W H O K I L L is both a testament to her songwriting and to her confidence in modern music audiences.
“Bizness,” the album’s sixth track, is Garbus’ best track to date – a thrilling journey up and down the mountains of tUnE-yArDs’ sound. In many ways, it’s the distillation of everything that makes this album great: Garbus quite literally spares no drop, openly proclaiming, “I’ll bleed if you ask me.” Her voice is both wild and saccharine, the drums and bass both rubbery and clattering. The chorus is instantly infectious. Garbus has been playing this song live for years, so much so that when it was released as the album’s first single it was immediately familiar. Still, Garbus is not afraid to admit that she’s defied expectations in the intervening years: “I am no longer who you thought this one would be.” She’s right; W H O K I L L is a stunning album from an artist who seems to find sounds in the corners where no one else is looking.
Free MP3: tUnE-yArDs – “Bizness”
We’re giving away a copy of tUnE-yArDs’ W H O K I L L LP on vinyl and CD. If you’d like to enter, leave a comment below with your thoughts on the words and music above. Don’t forget to leave the “Post To Facebook” box checked. Oh and why don’t you Like us on Facebook?