It’s tough to find words that feel powerful enough to do Merill Garbus justice. In a time when new music rarely sounds new and listeners are as fickle as ever, the compelling talent behind tUnE-yArDs has just the right kind of flair and personality the music scene so desperately needs.
To say w h o k i l l — Garbus’ second album under the tUnE-yArDs moniker — is an exhilarating and unique listen, would be colossal understatement. w h o k i l l is a bold work of art that builds on the greatness heard in Garbus’ lo-fi self-recorded debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, while simultaneously ironing out the first LP’s issues. Thankfully, her signature ukulele, percussion, and kick-ass vocal loops are still present, but this time around she decided to record in a studio — and her songs benefit greatly from it. Without the lo-fi ceiling, Garbus’ music has transitioned from charged and impassioned, to truly explosive.
Two other positive changes since BiRd-BrAiNs are the inclusion of horns on many tracks and the addition of Nate Brenner on bass. Brenner, a second generation jazz musician, adds mystery and depth with his skillful bass playing and does a fantastic job of intertwining his jazzy lines with Garbus’ wild layers of looped sound. W h o k i l l encompasses elements of Afro, folk, rock, pop, dance — the list goes on — but that’s what’s so great about Garbus’ music: it challenges conventions and defies definition.
Garbus pushes boundaries at every turn, tirelessly stretching and twisting all of her instruments in wonderfully weird ways — but it is her voice that impresses the most. Whether singing close and soft as heard in the pared down acoustic Wolly Wolly Gong or strong and soulful as demonstrated in Powa, Garbus commands the listener’s attention. The latter track is undeniably one of the best on the album, mainly because it is the cleanest and clearest showcase of Garbus’ vocal range and ability. The track burns with raw emotion and sexual energy as she fearlessly and passionately sings about a lover who has the ability to make her momentarily forget about her self-hatred and body image issues. During the final third of the song Garbus completely cuts loose, and when she soars into her higher range she does so with authority and control. This is a woman who understands her talent.
Another note-worthy ability of Garbus’ is her knack for writing songs about controversial issues and expressing her personal opinions without coming across as self-righteous. On w h o k i l l, Garbus tackles tough topics such as race, sex, inequality and violence, but instead of preaching about right and wrong she makes intelligent musical choices and uses more powerful tools (witty lyrics, a satirical vocal style and contrasting melodies) to make a statement. In the bouncy Es-so Garbus keeps things light-hearted while fearlessly taking on the topic of eating disorders (which she has openly admitted to battling in the past), adopting her best Valley Girl persona she dizzily spits, “I gotta do right if my body’s tight, right?” The absurdity of the character highlights the absurdity of the statement and resonates deep with the listener despite the song’s humorous quality. On the 50’s pop throwback Doorstep Garbus brightly coos, “Policemen shot my baby crossing right over my doorstep / His arms were so close you could see the blood pulsing through both his wrists / Don’t tell me the cops are right in a wrong like this…” before sha la la la-ing so happily she could be singing about apple pie or unicorns. The contrast isn’t jarring; it’s effective.
It is incredibly refreshing to listen to music that cannot so neatly be placed into a box, but what is most is that the eccentricities, energy, passion and personality behind the music are authentic. Garbus’ unconventional behaviour, uncontainable creativity and experimental ways may scare off some, but for many she summons hope for today’s music. W h o k i l l is an earnest album, and tUnE-yArDs showcases a talent that should not be overlooked.
— By Amanda Gallagher, freelance writer and wearer of many (tiny) hats.