“To ladies and gentleman, Merill is performing at the…” begins “My Country,” the opening track of whokill, the sophomore album by experimental multi-instrumentalist tUnE-yArDs. Taking a page out of the book of DJs and rappers everywhere, Oakland-based Merill Garbus makes sure that the listener knows the mastermind behind the record from the outset.
Yet, Garbus could not be more different from the aforementioned, as she uses the shout-out merely for artistic effect rather than as a promotional plug. This quickly becomes clear as the album progresses — Garbus has her own agenda and makes no sacrifices in achieving it.
whokill is a diverse collection of songs inspired by a countless number of musical styles, from jazz and R&B to folk and Afropop. Unlike her self-released bedroom debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, which used primarily a tape recorder and ukelele, whokill had the backing of a prominent label, 4AD. Yet, while utilizing the help of CA-based producer/engineer Eli Crews, known for his work with Deerhoof and Beulah, enlisting a bass player, Nate Brenner, and various session musicians, Garbus stayed true to her raw, lo-fi sound.
The combination of this sound, an emphasis on patterns and loops and her dynamic, ever-surprising voice is what pushes whokill beyond simply another amalgam of experimental weirdness. Garbus’ voice shines through time and time again, using her impressive range to imitate sirens, percussive drums and a variety of different pitches.
While it’s quite possible to get wrapped up in the richness of voice, Garbus does also have something to say. whokill touches on themes ranging from violence and power to self-identity. One recurring theme, ringing true among lots of college students, is her reflection — or maybe self-doubting — about hipsters. She also touches upon more emotional topics, such as on “Doorstep,” telling the tale about what happened in her Oakland community after an unarmed black man was shot dead by the police.
Even in the darkest moments of the album, Garbus lightens the mood with her airy, fluid harmonies and melodic lyrics. In “Doorstep,” the point she is bringing across does fall behind her catchy, enthusiastic instrumentation; maybe she hoped for some hopeful thoughts for the future in this, but it isn’t immediately clear.
Otherwise, her musical style accompanies the song’s content quite nicely. “Powa,” a laid-back guitar-laced tune, is a song of enraptured lust. “Gangsta,” featuring a call-and-response percussive-heavy loop of beats and sirens, warns of danger. The lead single, “Bizness,” a mixture of African rhymes and Garbus’ voice in the imitation of a xylophone, has the unlikely chorus of “I’m a victim, yeah, don’t take my life from me.”
Regardless of underlying themes, Garbus’ pushes beyond the boundaries of experimental noise pop with a wide array of genres and instrumentation. This primal, individualistic take is what makes the album so successful. At the beginning of the album closer, “Killa,” Garbus whispers “I’m a new kind of woman.” After whokill, Garbus sure has made the transition to this new kind of woman, her alter-ego, tUnE-yArDs.