Posted on May 11th, 2011 (11:00 am) by Brandt Kempin

tUnE-yArDs’ second album finds itself in no sophomoric slump. Bird-Brains, Merril Garbus’s first album as tUnE-yArDs, was known for its lo-fi sound that managed to stay coherent and interesting while alternating between the extreme busyness of densely mixed drums, found sounds, and the sparsity of solo vocals or ukelele. w h o k i l l, the follow up to Bird-Brains, finds Garbus making use of a studio and an added bass player. The album is very well produced, staying clean even through moments at least as dense as those we heard on Bird-Brains. Though lacking an element of the home-produced warmth and charm pervading her first release, w h o k i l l demonstrates Garbus’s ability to produce amazing music in a variety of settings. The production work, in turn, showcases her unique vocal talents, as well as making new use of her talent for alternating and combining sparsity and auditory busyness.

Opening with “My Country”, listeners are immediately made aware of the fact that this album was not recorded on a digital voice recorder, but in a professional studio. We encounter the chopped and layered vocals present in her earlier work, but perfectly in key and cleanly lined up. Forceful electric drums pound tribally as textured synths and a variety of saxophones threaten chaos but are held together by the commanding force of Garbus’s voice as she asks “Sweet land of Liberty/ How come I cannot see my future in your eyes?”

“Eso” differs dramatically from the opener. Rather than clear vistas, track two conjures the image of someone slinking long-legged down dirty city streets. As the lyrics explore the subject of body image, as well as the self-loathing that, unfortunately, the subject is wont to conjure, a slightly dissonant, funky guitar bounces back and forth between your speakers over a dark, jazzy upright bass riff.

Though not the best song on the album, the song “riotriot” features one of the most powerful moments w h o k i l l has to offer. Beginning softly, an awesomely uncomfortable ukelele riff and jazzy drums back up her breathy vocals as she admits “I have a secret to tell you/ about the night I met you/ you had come to put handcuffs on my brother/ down in the alleyway/ I dreamt of making love to you/ upon the rooftop looking out at the sky.” The discomfort slowly rises in a building wave of dissonance that crests as all the music ceases and Garbus yells “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand/ and that I’ve never felt before!”, followed by the reintroduction of all of the instruments in a rejoiceful, major key, beautifully simulating the catharsis inherent in the lyrics.

“Bizness”, like “My Country”, draws heavily on Afro Pop in its layered background vocals over an intricate yet driving 4/4 beat brought together by immensely soulful major key vocals. In fact, tUne-yArDs is revitalizing the pop music of our era in the same way, though a bit more subtly and with a more electronic sound, that Paul Simon rejuvenated and in some ways redefined the pop music of the 80s by mixing it with its African roots.

There is no doubt Garbus has a uniquely strong innate talent for pop music. This talent is enriched by a naturally low voice that has no trouble hitting the high notes, recalling the skill of Nina Simone or Roy Orbison. This album is richly colorful in a way that is rare in modern pop music. Filled with a vibrancy that is well described in the lyrics to the song “You Yes You,” in which Garbus asks “Now that everything is gonna be ok/ Now that everything is gonna be alright/ What if baby I cannot see the sound?/ What if baby I cannot hear the light?”, w h o k i l l is absolutely sure to be one of the best pop albums of the year.

Track List:

1. My Country
2. Es-so
3. Gangsta
4. Powa
5. Riotriot
6. Bizness
7. Doorstep
8. You Yes You
9. Wooly Wolly Gong
10. Killa

Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

83 / 100
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