Alternating capitalization and lines such as “Should have just stayed at home, when a girl feels so alone” instantly recall the good old days of AOL Instant Messenger: middle school drama queens with screen-names spelled obnoxiously, whining about their mundane suburban lives riddled with frivolous drama. Fortunately, the case with tUnE-yArDs and the track “Fiya” from which those words are taken can’t be more different than pre-teen woes: Merrill Garbus’ funkily formatted project and her 2009 debut BiRd-BrAiNs are emotionally and sonically complex, rich in experimentation and soul, accented with sunshiny melodies. Looped ukulele ditties and vocal tracks alongside street noise and sporadic percussion all pieced together by hand with basic software formed that year’s shining example of the glory of the DIY aesthetic with BiRd-BrAiNs, as Garbus had meticulously placed each screech, clatter, and seemingly out-of-place drum bit herself– a true labor of love.
After striking a deal with 4AD and spending time on tour with bands such as the Dirty Projectors, Garbus is back, two years later, with w h o k i l l, without capital letters and, most notably, without fuzz. Fear not, though: Whereas BiRd-BrAiNs’ charm lies in its DIY aesthetic, w h o k i l l pleases with its fullness and clear demonstration of the immensity of Garbus’ talent. The differences between the albums, although stark, indicate anything but selling out, as the stigma associated with professional production for previously lo-fi artists would lead one to think. Garbus’ tunes are as quirky as ever, with the subtleties even more enjoyable now because they are audible in the mix.
Whether it’s the synths and drums bouncing back and forth between ears on “My Country”, the gunshot percussion alongside bursts of horns on “Gangsta”, or the warbled soundscape of “Riotriot”, w h o k i l l ‘s instrumentation is playful to the extreme, exuding a child-like fearlessness of convention. Each song consists of myriad tracks, layered together seamlessly to create many lush levels of melodies to attend to. It’s never taxing, though, as each is tastefully constructed to test our patience but not exhaust it. Furthering this idea, the consistently grooving bass lines throughout the album effectively ground the airy wails, tribal drumming, and disparate noises, resulting in impressive cohesion. This is perfectly demonstrated by album closer “Killa”, whose bass is the main accompaniment to Garbus’ swirling, unintelligible, reverb-heavy monologue.
That’s not to say that w h o k i l l is by any means tame, as Garbus’ vocals as a vehicle for lyrics and as an infinite source of tracks to loop prove to have no boundaries. Her voice is at times as sultry as the best R&B singers (especially in ballad “Powa”) and others, comparable to chirping birds (notably in “Es-so”) – it’s incredibly versatile and ceaselessly interesting, and it’s where the album draws its power from. Album opener “My Country” sets the stage, as her layered vocal sounds become as vital to the instrumentation as the pounding drums. This inhibition, using her voice as another instrument, sets tUnE-yArDs apart from the mundanes aspects of traditional bands. Released single “Bizness” best exemplifies the range of Garbus’ vocal abilities, as the song begins with multiple cooing tracks backing up a soulful delivery of the lyrics. The happiness and bubbly delivery is impossible to resist, and Garbus’ presence in every aspect of the song makes a strong case for “Bizness” to be w h o k i l l ‘s strongest.
The lyrics throughout are in the same vein as the aural assault of noise: confronting and thought-provoking. Garbus explicitly voices her discontent with American society from the first line of the album, asking “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty/How come I cannot see my future within your arms?” Struggling for survival in America as well as responding to calls for conformity appear as well, expressly in “Bizness” (“What’s the business?/Don’t take my life away, don’t take my life away”) and the scathing satirical closing remarks on “Killa” (“I tried to write a song in your style/tried to steal from the 80s/I’m so hip!”) The words’ effect, although strong on paper, ends up coming from Garbus’ powerhouse performance, as her vocal range and variety of personas adds an emotional aspect to potentially empty critiques.
w h o k i l l is an album indulgent in eccentricity, compelling in its variety, and downright impossible to not enjoy. Each track brings something valuable to the album, whether it’s danceable beats, dreamy lullabies, or impassioned pleas for originality – there is no filler material here. Although sects of purists fans of BiRd-BrAiNs may disapprove of the new production, it’s senseless to limit the capabilities of an artist, especially one as gifted with composition and subtleties as Merrill Garbus – especially just to adhere to a socially-constructed expectation of hands-on lo-fi. She didn’t use Auto-Tune or any comparable aid to compensate for weaknesses, and tUnE-yArDs won’t be appearing on Top 40 stations any time soon: Her integrity as an artist is wholly in tact. We just get to experience the full potential and realization of her creativity, which fortunately encountered technology apt enough to record it.