Anyone familiar with tUnE-yArDs’ debut Bird Brains could tell you that Merrill Garbus, who for the most part recorded the album on her own, had a lot of potential. Often armed with simply her ukulele and kitchen sink percussive sounds, the album’s charms lay in its intimacy and Garbus’ songwriting prowess. The rough edges and primitive production was almost akin to bare wires exposed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say those rough edges have been completely sanded down on tUnE-yArDs’ follow up w h o k i l l but as is often the case with sophomore albums, Garbus certainly cleans up things up a bit. Her voice may still be somewhat of an acquired taste, but she has so much power behind it that it’s well worth the investment needed. What she manages this time around is a newfound kinetic energy and sense of abandon. Indeed, with the addition of a few supporting players, there is an organized chaos sustained throughout the album.
It’s to Garbus’ credit that she has the uncanny ability to make so many of her performances on w h o k i l l feel reckless, all the while never missing a beat. The album starts with a bang as she belts out “My Country” with unmatched power. Even the dual saxophones that drop in midway through can’t sideline her voice. It’s an awfully commanding start and the second track “Es-so” is equally as engaging. The song stomps along with a combination of clipped, R&B phrasing and an authoritative swagger. That command extends throughout the entire album. On a song like “Riotriot” where midway through there’s quite a chaotic breakdown, Garbus manages to bring things back around. She proves herself to be quite the master at creating a tension and release that’s equally as cathartic for the listener as it probably was for her to record it.
Bird Brains was a highly uneven affair with some extremely potent highlights. In contrast, w h o k i l l‘s highlights are many, but even some of the record’s weaker moments are still pretty interesting. A track like “Killa” may not be song of the year, but it still offers a pretty infectious bass line and occasionally a killer harmony. Garbus also excels at highlighting her idiosyncrasies without a sliver of pretension. Often times the winding melodies and off-kilter arrangements resemble the skewed pop of the Dirty Projectors, albeit with a much less meticulous approach. And similar to that band, Garbus is able to take indie aesthetics and marry them with noteworthy girl group harmonies and touches of R&B.
It’s seems a given that w h o k i l l will be a breakthrough moment for tUnE-yArDs, and deservedly so. Garbus has proven this time out that she can deliver a very sturdy set of songs, all with varying levels of intensity. Even amidst the pandemonium of the majority of the album, there are still plenty of delicate moments. “Wooly Wolly Gang” is actually quite elegant, featuring little more than spare percussion, ukulele and restrained vocals. This track, along with “Powa,” most closely resemble Bird Brains‘ more subdued approach and they help remind the listener of Garbus’ versatility as a songwriter. They also underscore the real key to w h o k i l l‘s success; whether she’s belting them out or simply letting them simmer, her melodies are gorgeously crafted and sung with passion.
Video: tUnE-yArDs – “Bizness”