Review Summary: Don't take her life away.
Merrill Garbus does not like to stay still. She doesn't want you
to stay still either. In fact, she would like nothing more than for you to get off your ass, put on some face paint, run outside with some tattered clothes on, and dance recklessly. Regrettably, her audience is composed primarily of basement dwellers blogging about music behind thick spectacles and in the emptily luminous light of their laptop screens, the type of crowd that stands around doing an awkward shuffle while Garbus is onstage with saxophones, loop pedals, and an endearingly awkward bass player wailing away, and basically just kicking ass. It's hard to resist the urge to just shake these guys up, to force them to loosen up and open their eyes up to the sheer uninhibited joy
that Garbus' infallibly charming personality so effortlessly projects.
w h o k i l l
, Garbus' second album as tUnE-yArDs, is a wild ride, restless both sonically and lyrically, and it is nothing short of absolutely delightful. It's also a marked improvement over BiRd-BrAiNs
, Garbus' already-excellent debut, taking everything that made that record as winning as it was, distilling it to its very essence, and amplifying it tenfold. Not by turning up the volume, per se, but by going into a studio, removing the excessive noise that hampered BiRd-BrAiNs
' weaker moments, and basically adding a newly polished sheen to Garbus' formally audacious approach to pop. Yet while w h o k i l l
is clearly a more hi-fi affair than its predecessor, it loses none of the blissful idiosyncrasies of, say, "Little Tiger" or "Hatari". Quite the contrary, in fact; those quirks are in sharp focus on tracks like "You Yes You" and "Gangsta", their impact significantly strengthened by the cleaner production.
Throughout w h o k i l l
, these quirks are melded to soaring vocal melodies and ingenious arrangements, rendering the album remarkably accessible despite its undeniable weirdness. There's not a single weak track to be found across the record's ten songs, and there are several transcendent ones. The best moments on the album display not only keen understanding of composition, which at this point is almost a given, but also an uncannily effective way of expressing emotion through cryptic language. "Bizness", the superb first single, is masterfully fluid in its approach to words; in the song's massive chorus, "I'm addicted, yeah" transforms into "I'm a victim, yeah", suggesting that the two may be one and the same. Most astonishing, however, is the closer, "Killa", which begins with a lilting melody and pseudo-rap that finds Garbus making something of a manifesto for herself: "I'm a new kind of woman / I'm a new kind of woman / I'm a don't take shit from you kind of woman." This being Garbus, the sentiment is delivered with a healthy dose of good-humoredness, but the startlingly clear-headed, astute display of self-awareness that follows is as dead serious as it is offbeat. Abandoning the sharply rhythmic phrasing of everything that has been presented in the last thirty-odd minutes, Garbus lets completely loose: "Would you call me naïve and an idealist if I told you I am disheartened that in this day and age, I do not have more male black friends? I cannot take it, I'm so hip; I'm hip like a yuppie is hip, confident and yipping at the heels of my yuppie forefathers!"
Not even James Murphy could capture being a ridiculously trendy commodity this well. Except that Garbus is so much more than a collection of fashionable signifiers. w h o k i l l
is loaded with her distinctive personality, at times practically exploding with pure energy, yet it never comes across as contrived or silly (aside from the glaringly cutesy spelling and stylization, that is). Because everything about tUnE-yArDs seems at once unrestricted and organic
, which helps explain why this record sounds so appealingly loose despite having the most tightly wound sonic constructions this side of Deerhoof vs. Evil
. Garbus is a genuine oddity, not a calculated one, and on this irresistible album, her winning eccentricities are on full display. "Don't take my life away," she sings urgently on "Bizness". Psh. As if anybody could.