Merrill Garbus was never supposed to make it. She doesn’t have the traditional good looks of Bat For Lashes, the preternatural instrumental talent of Joanna Newsom, or the natural vocal majesty of St. Vincent. Indeed, her appearance is decidedly non-traditional for a woman in show business; her choice of instrument (the ukulele) does not lend itself to standard concepts of virtuosity; and her voice is best described as “androgynous” (her closest vocal peer is most likely Antony Hegarty, who could be described in much the same fashion as Garbus). And so, the fact that Garbus’ project tUnE-yArDs has managed to light the indie press on fire with the leak of her second LP w h o k i l l is nothing short of a triumph of talent and hard work over industry machinery, the type of triumph that seems all too rare in our age.
It is a victory that Garbus has earned, as the record overflows with complexity, soul, passion, and pure unadulterated joy. The first tUnE-yArDs record, BiRd-BrAiNs was a great challenge for listeners and typists alike. The album, which was initially released only on recycled cassette tape (!), consisted of nothing more than voice, ukulele, bass, and found sound, and was recorded entirely on hand-held recorder. The material was exciting, innovative, and beautiful at times, but suffice it to say that the extreme lack of fidelity and unusual song structures kept many of even the most adventurous indie types from fully enjoying it. With w h o k i l l, the pop begins to creep to the front of Garbus’ sonic experiments, and as a result she has achieved something truly unique: a cerebral record enjoyed primarily on a visceral level.
Any record to which the word “cerebral” can be applied is likely to be teeming with influences, and w h o k i l l is no exception. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the most readily apparent influence is that of hip-hop, specifically the hard-hitting but skeletal production work of mid-80s acts like Run D.M.C., EPMD, and Boogie Down Productions. The first sounds heard on the record (after a brief spoken intro) are indeed the thunderous drums of “My Country,” a song that effectively co-opts a patriotic meme in order to transform it into social critique. The opening lyrics (“My country ’tis of thee/Sweet land of liberty/How come I cannot see my future within your arms?”) might even put a grin on Chuck D’s face.
tUnE-yArDs – “My Country”
If the hip-hop influence is subtle in the album’s early stages, it is all but glaring by the arrival of the record’s third track “Gangsta.” The song finds Garbus intoning “What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a gangsta?” over thudding drums and fuzzed-out bass. Of course, there is more to this rhythm-section-heavy track than pure old-school break-beat; one hears the strains of oddball metal groups like Primus or Fishbone as well. When later Garbus is heard asking “what’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a rockstar?” one realizes that the song is more than a hip-hop pose; it’s an embrace of alienation from one’s musical peers, a concept necessary to all of late-80s hip-hop (alienated from the traditional pop-R&B establishment) as well as the aforementioned fringe 90s bands (alienated from the burgeoning “alternative” scene of the time).
tUnE-yArDs – “Gangsta”
If the album’s A-side is dominated by musings on musical alienation, the B-side is focused on the triumph over it. It should be no surprise then that the prevailing influence on the flipside is the freak-folk of Animal Collective. Saying that a young band in 2011 is influenced by Animal Collective is like saying that a young basketball player prefers to wear the number 23, but Garbus goes far beyond aping the Baltimore quartet’s signature sound. Using her own unique mix of vocal loops, blaring horns, and emotional dysregulation, she channels the spirit of a band that has achieved adulation by embracing the glories of pop music while simultaneously refusing to compromise on its experimental impulses. Lead single “Bizness” and likely follow-up “Doorstep” are the record’s most accessible tracks as well as its catchiest, but rather than resulting from a retreat from tUnE-yArDs’ unusual approach, they stand as perfect distillations of it.
tUnE-yArDs – “Doorstep”
Of course, all of this cataloguing of influences has missed what tUnE-yArDs is at its core: a member of the rock n’ roll avant-garde. At the upcoming May show to honor Michael Azzerad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life, several contemporary bands will be performing the works of bands profiled in the book. tUnE-yArDs will be performing the music of Sonic Youth. If you’ve heard the songs above, you might find the pairing odd (where are the squealing, de-tuned guitars?), but in fact the pairing is quite natural. For if BiRd-BrAiNs was Garbus’ EVOL, a record bursting with musical ideas that attempted to subvert the notion of song, w h o k i l l is her Sister, a record that embraces the traditional pop song as a vehicle to convey those ideas. For those of us who love the adventurous side of rock music, we can only hope that her Daydream Nation is on the way.
L.V. Lopez is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He has reviewed numerous records for the site in 2011, including a recent review of The Weeknd’s House Of Balloons. He is neither a rock star nor a gangsta. w h o k i l l is out April 18th via 4AD Records.