Review Summary: A whistle-stop tour through the endlessly inventive, inspiring and, ultimately, insane mind of Merrill Garbus, w h o k i l l confirms quite resoundingly that it's creator really is the bizness.
It's always a heart-warming feeling in music to see a single person's project flourish into something that feels like so much more. It's the reason that Sufjan Stevens' Illinois is even more impressive than it would have been had it been the product of numerous musicians, it's the reason that James Blake's meditative bleeps and bloops feel so personal and, most recently, it's the reason that tUnE-yArDs, or Merrill Garbus's latest album, w h o k i l l, feels like such as astonishing release when one considers the number of people involved.
And on w h o k i l l, Garbus really goes all out. The public service announcement which heralds the beginning of proceedings is an entirely suitable introduction to a record so ambitious, so 'out there' that it could well cause mass panic amongst the music-loving public. Because there's nothing that sounds quite like Garbus' marching-band-caught-in-a-cheese-grater arrangements, with her suitably insane-sounding vocals giving one of the year's greatest bandleaders so far an equally unhinged, but brilliant, presence throughout the record. And the idea of Garbus being a bandleader is a tough one to get out of one's head when listening to w h o k i l l's ten tracks; the sheer number of instruments, sounds and textures on offer here belie the truth of this being the work of one particularly recondite individual.
Perhaps mercifully, though, we're not given too much time to ponder quite how she pulled it off; on this album, there's no let up. From the dizzyingly well-layered opening vocal chimes of first track My Country to the aggressive but playful proclamations of her own greatness which Garbus offers up on closing track Killa, the listener is whisked along on a whistle-stop tour of Garbus' inventive, innovative and inspiring musical vision. And what a vision it is. It's a record full of highlights, and glorious moments simply fill every single nook and cranny of every track, but there are certainly some standouts. Bizness features a chorus worthy of a hit single (although it's undoubtedly a bit too forward thinking to ever get that kind of success, sadly) Gangsta comes to a crashing halt in one of the most unexpected and well-executed bridges I've heard all year, and Doorstep's sunny harmonies call to mind a comparison to The Beach Boys' speedier efforts, although admittedly the effect is a little more unhinged here.
But what's most pleasing about w h o k i l l is the fact that it doesn't burn out. Whilst Garbus could quite happily have released ten tracks full of the madness which is certainly on display at points here, she's a smart enough artist to realise that there had to be a little more variety here. And so we're occasionally treated to the kind of slow-burning, quasi-balladic feast that always comes at the exact moment you feel the album needs a change of pace. Powa is the best of this kind of track, with it's 60s-sounding guitar tones cutting through Garbus' (for once) restrained vocals like a knife through butter. But there's also (the brilliantly named) Wooly Wolly Gong to keep listeners on their toes, as an unsettling guitar motif complements some of Garbus' most disturbing vocals and lyrics. Both of these slower tracks are much-needed antidotes to the infectiously groovy, bouncy tracks that make up most of the rest of the album, and as such, the changes of pace are handled nigh-on perfectly.
In 2007, the progressive metal band Dream Theater released an album called Systematic Chaos. In that case, it wasn't really apt; the album turned out to reaffirm the growing concerns that Dream Theater had lost their waning touch, and had just devolved into protracted solo sections for no good reason. But whilst the title wasn't such a great fit for them, I can't help but feel that Garbus would have done well to select something with a similar sentiment. Because that really is the appeal of w h o k i l l; it's consistently chaotic, with innumerable layers to the vocals and the instrumentation making sure that every track is like taking a ride on a carousel set to about a thousand times its natural speed. But chaos does not a great album make; Garbus also has the sense to make sure that everything on w h o k i l l is in its right place, and consequently the album comes off as feeling like the perfect dosage of crazy anybody could ask for to fill up forty one minutes of their time. 2011 might only be half-way done, but w h o k i l l is looking like one of the albums to beat come end of year rankings time; on this album, Merrill Garbus really is the bizness.