tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l Review
Seeing Merrill Garbus (tUnE-yArDs) perform at the Cedar Cultural center a few years back I was surprised at how accessible her music was in a live setting. Most of the tunes she was performing were from Bird Brains, a record that while good, took quite a bit of patience to get into. Live, however, Garbus’s unhinged vocals really opened the sound up – much more than her tinny home recordings had prepared me for. With her second record, w h o k i l l, Garbus really capitalizes on that accessibility and creates a cleaner sound much more in tune with what she’s laying down on stage. And it’s a better record for it.
Much of the difference comes simply from W h o k i l l’s superior recording quality – while Garbus still loops and chops her vocals up into a funky soup, it’s done more cleanly and less abrasively here. Bird Brains’ ever present tape hiss only appears in song intros and outros, and the field recordings (again, mostly children) are inserted more agreeably. Clearly recorded more professionally, Garbus’s unrestrained voice comes across cleanly and loudly. The ukulele still seems to be the artist’s instrument of choice though she uses it more sparingly than on Bird Brains. She’s also notably backed by the syncopated bass plunking of one Nate Brenner as well as a sax player.
In the new material tUnE-yArDs’ dub/reggae influence seems a great deal more profound than before – Garbus’s afrobeat inspired vocals as well as echo-infused Caribbean rhythms define the records sound, and Garbus’s lyricism occasionally makes it sound like she grew up in a Kingston slum. In something of a faux Caribbean accent she channels her words into politically charged stories of poverty and injustice – in examples like the satirical national anthem “My Country,” or the anti-establishment vibe of “Riotriot,” or “Doorstep.” The accent actually largely works for Garbus with one glaring exception: when she screams the cringeworthy line “was dat about!?” repeatedly in “You Yes You.”
Garbus seems to be un-self conscious to the extreme though, belting through numbers with audacity and self-assuredness that are complimented by her pristine pipes. Though the record is front heavy with danceable, groundshaking numbers like “My County,” and “Eso Eso,” she does slow down a bit for some slow-burning sweetness in “Powa” and creepy lullaby “Wooly Wolly Gong.” The best of w h o k i l l though is in the fast stuff such as the aforementioned tunes as well as lead single “Bizness.”
And it’s the power tunes that are likely to make tUnE-yArDs’ new record a big hit. The combination of better production quality as well as fantastic energy make for a sound that’s a great deal easier to jive with than its predecessor. And while some artists would have had to sacrifice artistic integrity in molding a more pop friendly sound, with w h o k i l l Garbus seems to have done it while still staying as weird and uncompromising as ever.
— Jon Behm
Whokill will be available on April 19th via 4AD.
tUnE-yArDs will be performing at the Cedar Cultural Center on 5/8