The last time we heard from Merrill Garbus, she was operating at such a DIY level that her music suffered because of it. To call her debut record BiRd-BrAiNs a gem buried underneath a pile of crap is probably pretty accurate. That’s not her fault, she was just using the tools available to her at the time. A computer, a microphone and a ukulele were pretty much all that she needed, and the results tended to sound worse than your average garage band’s demo. Still, there was something about that record that shone through in spite of its severe deficiencies. 4AD even liked it enough to release the record as-is, perhaps partly as a good faith in Garbus’ future, or with the sense that forward-thinking music fans would latch onto it no matter how clean or dirty the audio fidelity might be. Either way, it was a daring thing to record along with a daring thing to legitimately release in spite of all the clipped audio and other surface scratches. That gamble paid off, due less to the record itself and more to how its true nature rose to the surface when performed live. With a legitimate microphone and quality speakers to throw it out there, nothing stood in the way of the songs themselves anymore, and those that saw a tUnE-yArDs show ranted and raved not only about the songs but also about Garbus’ larger-than-life stage presence. Now that she has the backing and resources to assist her, the hope would be that a sophmore album might accurately reflect what everyone saw and heard when it wasn’t filtered through the shoddiest of DIY equipment. Guess what? The new record is titled “w h o k i l l”, and just like that everyone is handing their undivided attention over to Merrill Garbus.
Any legitimate attempts to describe the sound and texture of “w h o k i l l” is pretty much an exercise in futility. With so much more at her disposal, Garbus goes all out and packs the record with many things both expected and unexpected. She’s still a fan of the ukulele, but it’s not exactly her primary instrument anymore. More than anything else, her real instrument is that jaw-dropping voice of hers. You could absolutely tell there was a power behind it on BiRd-BrAiNs, but the full range and scope were trapped under a sea of poor fidelity. Hearing it in fully polished stereo on this new album is a revelation unto itself, the unique qualities oozing out on each track as Garbus almost seems to embody multiple characters depending on the song. The reason why are her low vs. high pitch dynamics, along with the scatological manner in which she rattles off lyrics. By all accounts, Garbus is a woman unhinged, unbeholden to any of your typical singing or songwriting tropes, and flippant to the point of flaunting it. In listening to her sing, you realize that everyone else is showing restraint by comparison. If she wants to growl and chirp, Merrill will growl and chirp. If, in the middle of singing a verse, she wants to go on a brief spoken word aside to get snarky about something, she’ll readily do so. Sure it can come across as crazy and certainly odd, but she does it with such reckless abandon and pure joy you can’t help but be charmed by it. Quirky is the best descriptor of it, and there’s very little being released under that category these days, let alone this loose and engaging.
Equally fun are the ways that Garbus blends widely varied styles and genres to her own benefit. The first, most notable instrument outside of the vocals is the percussion. There’s such a wide variety of beats on “w h o k i l l”, but the primary influence is definitely African in nature. As such, thoughts of a completely off-the-wall Paul Simon or even a strange otherworldly take on Vampire Weekend might pop up in your head. But that doesn’t even begin to take into account the flashes of R&B, reggae, jazz, soul, folk, hip hop, psych-pop, and just general world music that all show up at one point or another on the record. Those are what make this album so difficult to classify. With such a huge scope of sounds and instruments, it’s tempting to think that there’s no way any sort of consistency could develop. What this record maintains is an unerring sense of pop structures, hammering on phrases and choruses enough to stick in your head, even as the melodies that surround them can seem confounding. Additionally, what’s standard for this album is that there is no standard, the madness spread quite liberally and evenly. The unexpected thus becomes the expected, to the point where a normal-sounding song would feel out of place and almost a cop-out. The thrill is in the discovery, how you’re on this completely out of control ride with no idea where it will turn next. Mood-wise, “w h o k i l l” is a success because it never gets too dark or slow. There’s plenty of emotion, ranging everywhere from love and hate to happy and sad, but the upbeat stuff outweighs everything else, and the tempo never lets the depression take hold. The drum and bass arrangement of “Doorstep” is made more jovial with the light click-clack of some light wood on wood taps and overdubbed vocal harmonies that render the oft-repeated lyrics of “policeman shot my baby” ineffective in the outrage or horror we might otherwise feel. That’s the point though. Even the lone ballad on the record, the 6 minute “Woolywollygong”, has a bit of light amidst the generally dark lyrics and pace.
Speaking of lyrics, they’re another always key part of the tUnE-yArDs aesthetic. The highly explicit and blunt lyricisms that Garbus spits out are both impersonal yet immediately relatable. She sings in generalizations but with such specificity that it can sometimes feel like she’s putting your own thoughts out there. Most likely to have the hardest time with this are men, because whether you like it or not this is a feminist record through and through. So when there’s a song about body issues and self-mutilation, there’s not a whole lot of guys that have to deal with the psychological pressure of being a size 0. Underneath a very jazzy and funky melody on “Es-so”, you get self-hate moments like, “Sometimes I’ve got the jungle under my skin/drop at the rhythm, stick a fucking fork in/Bathe it all in a wave of disgust/(sarcastically Valley Girl) ‘I can’t believe I ate the whole thing'”. Charming, brilliant, and intensely dark all at the same time, while also remaining firmly grounded. In an equally fascinating methodology, “Powa” frankly champions sex and the pleasure that it brings. The intensely memorable chorus of “Your powa/inside/it rocks me like a lullaby” is wonderful unto itself, but where the song really gains meaning is the moment when it turns from being solely about sexual pleasure and again reaches into body image territory. “Mirror, mirror on the wall/can you see my face at all?/My man likes me from behind/Tell the truth, ah never mind/cause you bomb me with life’s humiliations every day” seems to be all self-hate, but in context the words are meant to convey that sex and intense love pull us out of those moments where we loathe our own bodies and instead embrace pure passion and pleasure. Sex is a refuge from not only the world, but from ourselves as well. “w h o k i l l” isn’t all about bodies and the perception of our bodies though. Opening track “My Country” weighs the positive and negatives of America. “Gangsta” deals with talking a tough game but not being able to back it up. And “Riotriot” finds Garbus infatuated with a police officer that shows up to arrest her brother. No matter the topic though, most every song and lyric on this album is thought-provoking and worthy of exploration, something worth doing when you have the time.
Some people are able to see the treasure sitting on the ocean floor while others just cruise on by it without a second thought because they don’t know it’s there. With a debut album like BiRd-BrAiNs, it was easy to move past tUnE-yArDs without a second thought, or even stopping to wonder what anyone could ever see in those abhorredly poor quality recordings. Turns out there was gold buried underneath, and the few keen ears that heard it the first time around can feel so much more justified with “w h o k i l l”. It is the record that will undoubtedly make Merrill Garbus a star. Every single word of praise you’ve heard about this record is justified, and even those that don’t understand it will likely find something nice to say. Innovative, sunny, funky and spine-tingling are all accurate descriptors for your listening experience, which is unlike any other you’ll have in 2011 almost guaranteed. Keep an eye out for a lot of imitators in the next year or two, though arguably none will fully succeed as well as Garbus herself will. The voice and the words are the two hugest sellers here, and both those things you can’t copy. Garbus is one-of-a-kind, and let’s hold out hope she stays that way for a long time to come.