tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l

A friend of mine reports, “I really like this record, but I can’t decide how much of that’s just because it’s so weird.” I’ll go a step further – I like w h o k i l l a lot, which is all the more impressive because it overcomes some serious affectations and third rail signifiers.

I’ll admit I didn’t give tUnE-yArDs’ debut BiRd-BrAiNs much of a chance – first there was the pretentious punctuation that announced, “I plan to make things difficult for no real purpose.” Add the solo, computer-based recording process and the resulting package came across as a hermetic science project. Closer listens revealed an intriguing statement of intent, however, and the later-vintage bonus tracks of the 4AD reissue hinted at a greater approachability.

w h o k i l l marks a gargantuan leap forward. Merrill Garbus may have reached this same point as a lone wolf (let’s agree to use her given name and drop the clunky tUnE-yArDs construct, shall we?) but it’s worth noting that her breakthrough coincides with a widening of the tent to include bassist Nate Brenner, whose old-school jazz runs inject much-needed warmth. She also wisely sets aside until the fourth track the ukulele that became BiRd-BrAiNs‘ calling card, skirting pigeonhole as a quirky novelty. Garbus’ economical use of sax bleats and processed uke jabs are powerful, but w h o k i l l is primarily about drums, bass…and voice – a voice heavily engaged in politics both social and personal.

Garbus’ sound is exceedingly tricky to pin down, much to her credit. When the beats turn heavier (‘Gangsta,” “Killa”) her agitpop resembles early MIA, particularly when her voice takes on a head-scratching island patois. But Garbus can sing as well as she shrieks and chants – on the skeletal reggae of “Powa” and the socially conscious multi-part harmony showpiece “Doorstep,” she does convincing turns as a late ’60s Tamla soulstress. Ultimately I’m most reminded of the beat poetry of Gil Scott-Heron or an arty chick’s modern re-imagination of Songs in the Key of Life.

This is risky terrain for a light skinned Smith College grad with a fondness for face paint and African poly-rhythms. So how does Garbus sidestep charges of Vampire Weekend-like cultural appropriation? For one thing, she’s more experimental in her application of sources and interested in dialogue – you almost expect to find a recommended listening syllabus in the liner notes. More importantly, Garbus is onto herself – halfway through closer “Killa” she half-winkingly rambles, “Would you call me naive if I told you I am disheartened that in this day and age I do not have more male black friends?”

Garbus wraps up “My Country” – a stunning freestyle inversion of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” – with my favorite bon mot on an album chock-full of them: “The worst thing about living a lie is wondering when they’ll find out.” Because Merrill Garbus is so fearless she has nothing to fear – and with any luck the right people will find out about w h o k i l l.

w h o k i l l