It's not too often that a new record stands out as a truly exceptional experience. Merrill Garbus first caught our attention with BiRd-BrAiNs, which was praised for its unique and raw qualities (being captured entirely on a handheld voice recorder). But her latest tUnE-yArDs production, w h o k i l l, is a genre-bending model of sonic enlightenment.
As a fellow supporter of the DIY culture, it was difficult to find value in Garbus' migration from New England voice recorders to West coast studios. Garbus, partnered with engineer, Eli Crews, at New, Improved Studios in Oakland, CA, may not have inspired an IKEA shopping spree, but w h o k i l l has certainly washed my musically cynical mind clean. With the edition of bassist Nate Brenner (who assisted in some songwriting), and tenor sax man Matt Nelson, tUnE-yArDs successfully expanded an already radical repertoire of musical ingenuity.
The vocal prowess of Garbus is evident throughout w h o k i l l. From her lowest, pack-a-day lows, to the extreme heights of her siren screeches; she uses her vocal ambiguity caters to song theme and tone. In "Powa", she gently whispers with enticing vulnerability. As the song becomes sexually charged lyrically, "My man likes me from behind/tell the truth I never mind", her vocals equally gain aggression. In the album's opening track, "My Country", she symbolizes feminist disapproval of the American Dream and of her own privilege. The layering of her voice, in conflicting tones, illuminates the her hostility.
w h o k i l l is an arrangement of percussive eccentricity. Protruding though Garbus' soaring hums is the rhythm of tribal thuds. In tracks "Bizness" and especially in "My Country", ceremonial, sabar poundings act as the songs' foundations. Garbus' vocals also contribute to the percussion. In "Bizness", the background hums twinkle, resembling a gently tapped metallophone.
A narrative that maintains a theme of conflict, w h o k i l l is never sonically overpowering with its lyrically riotous intent. Most often, tUnE-yArDs contrasts the realistic malice with calming and awe-inspiring tones. With both listeners who will identify with her message, and those who can simply enjoy the music (but will eventually be inspired), w h o k i l l will certainly become a cult epidemic.