Fresh off the airwaves

In the age of the Internet, typography has become increasingly varied and, unfortunately, often irritating. So when Merrill Garbus decided to call her solo project tUnE-yArDs (using the abhorred alternating caps), she ran the risk of driving away listeners before they even heard her music, and it doesn’t end here; her first album was entitled BiRd-BrAiNs, which was made only slightly more palatable by this second LP’s title, w h o k i l l, and its unorthodox spacing.
However, once this first barrier has been overcome, w h o k i l l reveals itself as an immensely enjoyable record, a complex, ecstatic affair that surprises at every turn. Even Garbus’ origins are misleading: Born and raised in Connecticut suburbs, she attended Smith College right across the state border. But the conventionality ends there; her parents were self-proclaimed hippies, folk singers both who toured the country, and after receiving her undergraduate degree she became an accomplished puppeteer, studied Sub-Saharan yodeling in Africa and began performing as a one-woman show in Montreal in 2006. By 2009, she had forged her identity as tUnE-yArDs, a musical phenomenon that sprang up as the inevitable product of so many artistic influences colliding head-on. She released the scrappy, lo-fi BiRd-BrAiNs, recorded entirely on a handheld dictaphone; she used her own voice and simple instruments, and subsequently she captured layers of sound which she superimposes using a rudimentary loop machine to create dense, intricate songs.
In w h o k i l l, the basic method remains unchanged, but Garbus ups the ante with a far greater production value. We have her finally entering a studio and giving her voice and composition a cleaner edge, and it seems that it is in these conditions that the richness of her voice and melodies come fully to light. The presence of African rhythms and sounds is what strikes first and foremost, going above and beyond what bands such as Vampire Weekend have done to incorporate this style into a contemporary pop-rock genre; songs such as “Es-So” or “Doorstep” tie together euphoric, hectic percussions with rapid vocals that shimmer and shake with energy, ceaselessly changing between deep growl and high falsetto. No wonder that the likes of Yoko Ono and Wu Tang Clan count themselves amongst her fans.
Undeniably, the chief strength of this album is Garbus’ voice: Its strength and range lend her sound an incredible power which nevertheless can translate to sweet, soft croons. In pieces like “Gangsta” or “Bizness” she shouts and screams almost angrily, her cries and sharp breaths introducing a seldom-seen edginess to her songs; on the other side of the spectrum, in “Powa” and “Riotriot” we hear examples of her underlying tenderness and sensitivity, as she sings gently along to the simple, quiet pluck of her ukulele.
To add to the overall complexity, w h o k i l l is, lyrically, a rather tenebrous work. In sometimes-intense contrast with the upbeat, joyous rhythms and catchy tunes that populate the album, the themes and imagery that accompany them are often more frank than one would expect. Self-loathing, for example, is a recurring topic; “With my eyes open how can I be happy?” Garbus asks in “My Country” as she proclaims her perennial inability to be content. Insecurity, despair and love lost settle in as the leitmotifs of the recording, providing a sobering background to the otherwise merry scene.
Whereas its appeal is instant, understanding what exactly about w h o k i l l titillates us can be hard to decrypt; in the end, it seems that its boundless variety, blending R&B, African pop, rock and folk, is what keeps us coming back. The album itself twists and turns, meandering through a variety of moods that change even within songs. While undoubtedly a summer album that we by reflex imagine blaring out of a convertible in the glorious sunshine, tUnE-yArDs aspires to be much, much more. Already compared to the likes of Sonic Youth and Ani DiFranco, Garbus strikes as a promising, exciting new talent.

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