Grant me the admittedly dubious assumption that it makes sense to talk about “albums like w h o k i l l” and I’ll say the following: Reviewing albums like w h o k i l l makes me grateful to be writing about music at a time when any interested reader is empowered to seek out and experience the very songs I’m writing about before they even get to the bottom of this review. Were it not for that convenience, I’d face the impossible task of trying to describe what this latest batch of Tune-Yards songs sounds like. In attempting to do so, I’d inevitably come around to cataloguing the formidable range of genres and styles that vocalist/composer/multi-instrumentalist Merrill Garbus touches on, naturally taking due care to present you with appropriately discordant juxtapositions like “Afrobeat and punk” or “free jazz and R&B,” trying to recreate in my own writing some intimation of the album’s head-whirling compositional verve. But I don’t have to do that.
What a relief. Because I actually doubt that I could do it, and even if I could, I don’t think I’d be giving this bold and fascinating avant-pop record its due. w h o k i l l is virtuosic noise pop, and it doesn’t sound like a free-wheeling collage a la Janelle Monáe or M.I.A. so much as a cohesive style that happens to be performed by just one person on Earth. If you told me that there’s a name for what Tune-Yards does and that Garbus grew up listening to this kind of stuff (like her parents have the world’s only collection of sample-based analog freak-folk records), I’d believe you, because that’s how organic, how confidently executed these performances are. Admittedly, the trumpets and trombones that burst out of “My Country” around the 2:40 mark do sound like the type of thing you’d hear on an Antibalas record, and they’re soon joined by atonal sax runs that could be inspired by John Zorn, but that barely matters while you’re listening to the song. Those component parts, no less than the odd, honking sample in the background (kazoo? I have no idea) and the funky tom beat that drives it all along, just sound like Garbus doing what she does.
Which is not to imply that w h o k i l l is never abrasive or discordant. The ear-ringing interludes on body-positivity jam “Es-So” sound like rickety, tribal variations on Sonic Youth’s white-noise outbursts, and the closing track, “Killa,” contains a sample of what sounds like Garbus talking furiously to herself. But these moments, where Garbus pushes her compositions to the very limits of intelligibility, are tightly controlled and never indulged for too long. Plus, she’s just as likely to surprise with an abrupt turn toward the accessible and instantly gratifying, a tactic which generates some of w h o k i l l‘s most endearing numbers. “Riotriot” is an unsettling psychosexual confession where Garbus sings about lusting after the cop who arrested her brother until, suddenly, it becomes the best Vampire Weekend song ever. Garbus wails, “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand/And like I’ve never felt before,” at which point it’s all handclaps and joyous brass.
But it’s “Powa” which provides the album with its unequivocal high point, just because it provides the best showcase for Garbus’s most compelling instrument. Listening to her absolutely singular voice it’s impossible to tell if she grew up singing along to Bob Marley or Mariah Carey. Her lower register is rich and somewhat masculine, but she can also ascend to an airy whistle which—and I’m willing to bet money on this—probably moves audiences to whoop and applaud when she brings it out live. But unlike so many talented vocalists who never move beyond a masturbatory fixation with their own chops (I’m thinking of someone who just landed a primetime gig on NBC), Garbus always sings because she has something to say. As the lyrics on w h o k i l l attest, she’s a woman who’s deeply in touch with her own desires and equally as attuned to the less-than-savory aspects of her society. The subject matter can be every bit as transgressive as what you’d expect to hear from, say, early Deerhunter, but Garbus never sounds preoccupied with her own edginess.
I, on the other hand, am pretty well obsessed with her edginess. The music on w h o k i l l is heady, boundary-pushing stuff, and it raises the bar for experimentation and consistency still higher in a year that’s already seen powerful pop-art from the likes of Lykke Li and PJ Harvey. You’d need a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and more free time than this critic’s got to unpack all of w h o k i l l‘s good ideas, which makes it the type of record that’s ideal for sharing with friends (P2P style or, you know, at something so low-tech as a cookout or road trip). A tremendous leap forward from Tune-Yards’ previous efforts, w h o k i l l proves that Garbus isn’t just a brainy artiste with a killer voice, but an event, someone to take notice of, a new center of gravity in the musical underground. Call her Madame Beefheart if you want, because in this inspired and inspirational racket I detect the sound of a cult star being born.