w h o k i l l
May 18, 2011 Web Exclusive
tUnE-yArDs is the name 32-year-old Merrill Garbus has given her dizzying one-woman electro-percussion act, and while the moniker may look like it was typed by a 13-year-old on a Justin Bieber fan board, Garbus is no amateur. A songwriter, vocalist and ukulele player from Oakland, CA, she’s currently one of indie’s greatest iconoclasts.
Each track on her sophomore effort w h o k i l l—her 2009 debut BiRd-BrAiNs was recorded entirely on a handheld tape player—is a collage of thumping beats, electronic hums and shivers, and lyrics that delve into prickly topics such as race and gender. Along the way, Garbus channels every genre from hip-hop and reggae to electronica, R&B and Afro-pop, tossing horns and saxophones into the mix almost for the hell of it.
If it sounds like a big pill to swallow, it is. And yet Garbus holds each song together with her powerhouse androgynous yelp, which evokes everyone from Prince to a brasher Ani DiFranco. The post-lo-fi fusion work best on the standout track “Gangsta,” in which Garbus loops her voice into wailing sirens, and on the see-sawing crunch of “Es-so.”
For all its trendy musical experimentation, w h o k i l l also deserves praise for its lyrics, which explore racial and sociological tensions with surprising depth. “The worst thing about living a lie is just wondering when they’ll find out!” she declares on the ambivalently patriotic “My Country,” at once glib and inching towards earnestness. Any traces of early comparison to Vampire Weekend should be retired by the time Garbus laments on “Killa” that she doesn’t have more “male black friends.”
It’s truly peerless music. And though Garbus sometimes teeters on the brink of musical bombast, her imagination propels it all forward while avoiding the quicksand of self-indulgence.
“What’s a girl to do if she’ll never be a rasta?” she ponders on “Gangsta.” Garbus might never pierce the mainstream with all of her quirks, but hopefully she’ll keep making music that’s gone weirdly, wonderfully rogue. (www.tune-yards.com)
Author rating: 8/10
Average reader rating: 9/10