A Freedom We Don’t Understand
There’s something extremely magnetic about Merrill Garbus’ second record as tUnE-yArDs. It might take one back to their first moments with Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs and “We Tigers,” a three-minute study in infectious tribal rhythms, ecstatic energy, and vocal innovation. Garbus seems to be creating her own form of shock and awe with this record, w h o k i l l.
On her debut Bird-Brains, Garbus stuck to a fancy computer program to record herself and her own loops, percussion, and ukelele. w h o k i l l is a full studio effort with the welcome presence of bassist Nate Brenner, but that’s not what makes this record outshine the competition. Instead, it’s her earnest and astonishingly powerful voice, one of the most unique in indie-rock.
When you listen to first single “Bizness” (before viewing its alternately obnoxious and brilliant video) you’d almost peg Garbus as an African man screaming out a traditional spiritual. In fact, she heavily seasons this sophomore effort with elements of afro-folk, but there are also doses of simple acoustic folk and hefty, hearty beats.
Take “Gangsta,” for instance. The introduction is a chunky, funky beat that could be the bedding for Tricky or The Streets. But as layers like choral noise, Brenner’s heavy bass, a blaring alto sax, and Garbus’ vocal stretching and screaming pile on top, it defies categorization.
What’s also inspiring about this record is its variety. “Bizness” and “Gangsta” are very high-energy freakouts. “Es-so” is a mid-tempo and wild-eyed romp that feels almost like acid jazz, as do the slower “Powa” and “Wooly Wolly Gong.” Of course, when you listen to w h o k i l l from beginning to end over a dozen times (which will happen), it blends together until songs get represented in your brain by Garbus’ stunning turns of phrase.
In the opener “My Country” she sings, “The worst thing about living a lie is just wondering when they’ll find out.” While we have no reason to believe she’s living a lie, it’s a simple statement of truth for all kinds of people who are, in fact, living a lie. In the standout “Riotriot,” she tells an absolutely fascinating tale of watching her brother get arrested and fantasizing about fucking the arresting officer. It’s a dreamlike admission of off-kilter desire.
Here she also screams, seemingly as loud as she can, “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand, and like I’ve never felt before,” before “Riotriot” comes to a crashing conclusion. It’s inspiring to watch an artist admit uncertainty. Similarly, w h o k i l l seems certainly revelatory and game-changing, yet it’s freeing to admit that we’re not completely sure why, or if tUnE-yArDs’ efforts will stick.