tUnE-yArDs : w h o k i l l
tUnE-yArDs is the working moniker for one-woman band, New England vocalist Merrill Garbus, who does things with her voice that finely honed divas could only dream of, all backed by oddball settings and arrangements as delightfully eccentric as her shift-key defying grammar.
Gangsta, for example, would be sardonically tongue-in-cheek if it wasn't so impressive. Beginning with a rattle of distorted bass and clanging household percussion before Garbus impersonates a police siren that gradually crackles headlong into a muscular loop that acts as a bedrock for the glam-come-hip hop delivery that follows. Then there's You Yes You where she dances around loose-wired guitars and shuffling drums in a series of vocal woops and harmonies, or Es-So's infinite multiplication of expressive hollers. Meanwhile Doorstep is a beautifully plaintiff song that blossoms out of its deceptively simple melodic line.
These skills as a bedroom arranger and vocal gymnast were all clear from tUnE-yArDs' lo-fi debut, the equally eccentrically spelt BiRd-BrAiNs, but where that was the sound of a single woman exploring her musical potential; w h o k i l l is the resultant explosion into vibrant technicolor.
There's still traces of that DIY aesthetic in the pared back approach to instrumental placement, but the corners are filled with far more polished sounds. The result is an intoxicating clash of the organic and the manipulated, they retain their human construction but presented in cut-and-paste arrangements that are impossible without digital manoeuvring. Such as My Country's thumping drums and equally bouncy vocal dotting.
The key to Garbus' looptape orchestration and rhythmic symphonies is her muse: co-writer and bassist Nate Brenner, his slinky lines perfectly counterpointing her vocal acrobatics on the likes of Powa or conversely, pushing the funky energy on the joyous Doorstep. It's a relationship not too dissimilar than that between bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorios and Joni Mitchell in her late seventies guise: two instruments at opposite ends of the spectrum that find unison precisely in their counterpoint. A push-and-pull dynamic that's reflected in the subject matter.
These are songs of inquisition, dominance and most obviously in Garbus' elastic dynamics: contortion. My Country asks "If all of this is yours / How will I know if something's mine?" Meanwhile Riotriot declares, against the knotty mix of blaring horns and dissonant guitar plucking "There is a freedom in violence that I don't understand / And that I've never felt before."
Not all of the joys of tUnE-yArDs are esoteric though, it's experimental to be sure, but its rhythmic grooves and passionate delivery reel you in as well as any bubblegum pop could. Its clever topics about gender, image and body never risk interfering with the aim of getting that very same body to groove up a storm.
The proof comes in Bizness, an unmitigated triumph. It begins with a cascading vocal loop that soon meets minimalist Afro-pop rhythms that careen into a transcendent chorus of chants and percussive hits like fireworks, all the while Garbus' infectious melodies and vocal tics keeping the track chugging along. By the time the horns hit, it's already clear it's one of the year's best singles. It's the microcosm for w h o k i l l as a whole; carving a distinctly unique sound and appeal - an achievement in itself in today's recycling of culture - that perfectly represents the thoughts and personality of its creator and her collaborators in a package that shifts and grows with each listen.
A unique expression worthy identifying with, and in Merrill Garbus' loopy voice, one worth listening to.
Best Track: Bizness
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In A Word : Inimitable.