Merrill Garbus, Connecticut-native and creator of tUnE-yArDs, has spawned one of the top five indie albums of the year. She is in a distinct league, as 2011 has been a good year for emerging bands of this nature, spawning Foster The People, The Vaccines, YUCK and a new album from Smith Westerns, Garbus contends on this level. Her latest and second album under the tUnE-yArDs moniker, w h o k i l l, is more linear than her lo-fi freshman effort, Bird-Brains, though I hate to use a word that refers to straight lines when describing the tUnE-yArDs sound.
Garbus contrasts melodic screams with metrically precise notes, both vocally and musically. However, this is not formulaic, there is a bluesy, soulful and sometimes even high-pitched nature to Garbus’s voice as on seen proficiently on songs like “Powa,” that is something more free-spirit and natural. So while the album seems precise and tightly-wound in terms of drum beats, it is in fact very unscripted in feeling. The only difference is, there are boundaries to where it goes in terms of it being experimental or free-form in the way that her previous CD was.
The woman behind tUnE-yArDs cites her move to Oakland as the perpetrator behind her drastic change in sound. Garbus previously lived in Montreal, QC, where joined the band Sister Suvi, which included the guitarist for Islands, Patrick Gregoire. Her album with Sister Suvi, Now I Am Champion, is much more akin to w h o k i l l than Bird-Brain. There are still similarities in Merrill’s work, the technique for instance, but the influences are bolder.
While the New England songtress names 80’s icons like Sheena Easton, Cyndi Lauper and Debbie Gibson as inspirations, w h o k i l l contains fragments of jazz, hip-hop, afrobeat, blues, electronic AND rock. Rock being of course the foundation for which the tile is laid. Horns are blended with stylized, androgynous vocals and electric bass noise, put forth by co-writer/collaborator Nate Brenner. Garbus made the move to Oakland and met Brenner, who is part of a local jazz group there called Beep. Magic quickly ensued.
The single here is “Bizness,” released in February, with a snazzy video as iconic and commercially-friendly as a Target ad. You could even compare the “Bizness” video to OK Go’s “Here It Goes Again,” visually simple yet artistically pleasing. It is a colorful memory, children playing drums on their desks, flash mobs, an inside view of the singer’s mouth and teeth. The lyrics pound at you. “I’m a addicted yeah, don’t take my life away, don’t take my life away,” with the six layers of saxophone pursuing you like a flood.
This album is like a sap-covered tree you put your hand against. You can get these songs out of your head as easily as you can get that sap off your hands, though in the case of these songs, it is not unwanted. Quite the contrary, w h o k i l l is inviting. Inviting and crazy with peaceful tracks like the previously mentioned “Powa,” or aptly-named “Crazy” and also “Doorstep.” Or there’s the rapid hand-clapping usually found in some kind of urban 60’s neighborhood jump-roping song, as heard on “Killa.” Here Garbus is seething with irony, it’s oozing out her front teeth, out her pores as she speak-sings “I’m hip like a yuppie is hip, I cannot take it I am so hip.”
“Gangsta” nearly tops is all, with the saxophones bordering on a menacing mobster soundtrack and the drums pounding like Costa Rican howler monkeys. Overall tUnE-yArDs is the most versatile band around, offering more sound, imagination and genres than I’ve ever witnessed crammed into ten songs averaging four minutes. Merrill Garbus, currently signed to the label 4AD (Representing bands like The National, Bon Iver and Iron & Wine) is the underrated gem of the new decade. Even if she never makes another album, I can breathe easy at least knowing that this ukele-happy album, w h o k i l l, was unleashed upon the world.
For fans of : Dengue Fever, Deadboy And The Elephantmen, Islands