Under Review: tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l

Aside from being a guileless assault on my word processor’s auto-correct instincts, tUnE-yArDs is (for better more than for worse) one of the most unique acts around. The project, led by multi-instrumentalist Merrill Garbus, emerged a few years ago with a promising debut. The home-recorded BiRd-BrAiNs portrayed Garbus as a true outsider: melodies and hooks were present, but only fleetingly. Instead, Garbus focused on clumsy, over-processed beats and loops that disembodied her voice. On w h o k i l l, Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner revisit those motifs with a more polished professionalism. Returning are those bludgeoning grooves and manipulated vocals, but all the parts are used more precisely and skillfully.

Garbus wastes no time on w h o k i l l when it comes to subverting the familiar and expected. Opening track “My Country” warps the lyrics of “My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee” into a questioning indictment of rigid societal norms. The songs on
w h o k i l l are musically rich, with Brenner switching to a classy upright bass on the jazzy “Es-So.” In that same song, Garbus’ voice bounces between a gentle coo and a put-on ‘mall girl’ affectation when she spouts a series of self-consciously ‘girly’ phrases. One of Garbus’ primary musical tricks is that of convergence: on “Bizness,” skittering vocables and clattering drums are woven together as Garbus pleads “Don’t take my life away.” Elsewhere on w h o k i l l, Garbus is very clearly in charge: she ponders the suburban/urban crossover in “Gangsta,” and declares herself to be a “new kind of woman” in closer “Killa.” Throughout the album, Garbus tinkers with the production, intentionally splicing her vocals with unrelated collage recordings. She doesn’t quite sing these songs, but she chants, raps, shouts and growls her lyrics with an infectious enthusiasm.

There comes a point in almost every song on w h o k i l l in which things take a dark and disturbing turn. Whether it’s the sexual fantasy of “Riotriot,” (in which Garbus dreams of making love to the policeman who’s cuffing her brother) or coming across as both accusatory and reassuring on “You Yes You.” Like her eclectic influences, Garbus’ character is very multifaceted, and she’ll frequently display several contradictory emotions and desires at once. That she makes these emotions so aurally appealing with such experimental music is more than just impressive; it’s a work of art.

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~ by E. on May 20, 2011.

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