Album Review: tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l

by Steve Seel

Tuneyards - whokill
Tuneyards - whokill (Courtesy of 4AD Records)

Periodically, a work of art comes along that's so new, so original, that it makes your head explode a little bit. If you're in your forties, think of when you first saw Star Wars. There was so much new information crammed into those frames in such ingenious, fresh ways that it felt like your cortex was being shocked with 5000 volts.

When this happens in music, the result can either change the direction of the art form (see Dylan, Beatles, hip-hop in general) or end up as a little more than a significant cul de sac—an enjoyable ride for a while, but ultimately a dead end, if only for its inability to meld its offerings with the prevailing zeitgeist (see: prog rock). Halfway between these two poles, there are the countless little swats that move pop music forward down its evolutionary trajectory, some nudging it just a little, some giving it a hefty kick down the playing field.

When you encounter a new one, you instantly know when your brain is tripping on a drug that it has never experienced before, and you think: boy howdy, this is cool. Laurie Anderson's "O Superman"; Talking Heads' "Once In A Lifetime"; Public Enemy's "Fight The Power"—these are all fine examples, and to this list, we can now add the music of Merrill Garbus, who performs as Tune-Yards (specifically stylized in print as tUnE-YarDs, but I'll refrain from that affectation here for the purposes of typographic efficiency).

Garbus began her public life creating avant-garde works for the stage, but moved into music after a friend gave her a digital recorder and she began experimenting with the possibilities of looping her voice and simple sounds. The gonzo homemade wonkiness of her debut, Bird-Brains, saw her sorted into the "lo-fi" bin, but it also led to comparisons to artists like Bjork and Joanna Newsom—trailblazing, genreless musicians who revere sonic exploration above all else. As it was, Bird-Brains was just too out there to have much chance of communicating beyond an elite group of quirk-music fetishists. With whokill however, Tune-Yards' astounding second offering, the gap between just plain freaky and "holy s***, you have got to hear this" has been closed (whokill is also stylized with spaces between each letter as w h o k i l l, but I've spared you that here as well).

The similarities between Tune-Yards and Talking Heads are worth noting, in fact. In 1980, David Byrne and Brian Eno mixed African polyrhythms with Byrne's own trademark postmodern schizo-stylings, and the result was the brilliant future-music of Remain In Light—a gob-smackingly original mashup of third world pulse and spastic western post-punk. Garbus, who has lived in Africa and New England and now resides in the urban grit of Oakland, comes by her inspirations organically. But if her sonic amalgamations were merely calculated, we'd be left with Patrick Wolf attempting afro-pop.

Merrill Garbus' songs drip with un-self-conscious musicality and an unmistakable, audible joy. That's not all, though: this music is absolute sonic hot sex. The fact that Garbus is such a plain jane—the antithesis of the Florence Welch alterna-fox archetype—actually amplifies her eroticism. Listen to her nearly explicit lyrics and scorching (and virtuosic) vocal melismas on "Powa," and instantly, the faux-soulful "sincerity" of so many contemporary pop singers is revealed for what it is: hollow gymnastics, the musical equivalent of a track-and-field event. Tune-Yards is the sound of guttural, animalistic inspiration expressed through total creative whimsy.

The synthesis is almost frightening; Garbus represents such an unleashed, unfamiliar new life form that you just don't know what to do with her, but you're completely sucked in by her combination of soulful warmth, astoundingly malleable and nimble vocal skills, and brainy, technological gizmo-mastery. It's afro-pop meets math-rock, Captain Beefheart meets Prince, Nina Simone meets a Boss RC-50 Loop Station while tweaked on speed.

The songs on whokill attest to Garbus' ample exposure to African music: she compliments her ersatz high-life rhythms with a kind of Fela Kuti-esque pidgin-English that would sound affected in a less liberated performer, but coming from her, it comes across as simply inspired. "You Yes You," "Gangsta" and "My Country" all contain these nods to afro-pop, but they're merely part of Garbus' overall audio-collage—one that features everything from Laurie Anderson-ish sampled "ah-ah-ah"s to punk guitar blasts to sweet-as-cream vocal croons to fleeting nerd-girl spoken asides. It's a ridiculous collision of elements that should all collapse into a steaming hot mess, but it never does. The album reaches its apotheosis with "Bizness," a slowly additive crescendo of tracks and instruments with Garbus chanting "Don't take my life away!" as if to plead with the universe to allow her hair-brained creativity to flourish unhindered.

Will Tune-Yards' ingenious melding of experimentation and funky, flesh-and-blood accessibility result in Merrill Garbus attaining the status of one of the new decade's first true geniuses? A geeky, sexy, hyperactive spazmatazz with an astounding compositional ear and one of the most elastic voices in modern pop? There's no justice if she doesn't. Whokill is a joyful, exuberant lark, bursting with giddy enthusiasm and some of the purest, most undiluted creativity you will likely hear in the near future.