Merrill Garbus Calls Her tUnE

Courtesy of 4AD Records

“Ladies and gentlemen, Merrill is performing at the –”

With this cut-off spoken word intro, tUnE-yArDs launches into its second album. The person referred to is Merrill Garbus, who is the mind behind that strange capitalization.

Titled “w h o k i l l,” this is her second album. Her first album, “Bird-Brains,” from 2009 was recorded entirely on a handheld voice recorder. Despite — or maybe partially because of — this lo-fi attitude, tUnE-yArDs came to prominence in the experimental pop community; although the method of recording was at its most basic, the music stood out. In layering these basic recordings, Garbus added flares of complexity to her lo-fi endeavors.

With “w h o k i l l,” she does not completely abandon her scratchy voice-recorder roots. Instead, she supplements these higher quality recordings with the same natural elements that garnered her attention in the first place.

Fortunately, Garbus was able to separate the appeal of her music while moving it into a higher fidelity. The music on “w h o k i l l” maintains the same homespun elements of her first album, but this time around, she is able to do so without the harshness of background noise and clipped microphones.

The lo-fi elements are still there, but this time they are much more deliberately inserted. Instead of a necessity of the recording process, Garbus nuances her music with these callbacks to her voice recorder days.

From there, the ways that Garbus adds to that signature tUnE-yArDs sound are nothing short of explosive. Besides the addition of a horn section and a few upright bass tracks (which is almost never a bad idea), the first track contains a few short eruptions of electronic brilliance that are like solar flares that starkly contrast the song’s monotonous spoken-word introduction.

The conflict between the cage of monotony and the primal instinct inside us all is present throughout the album, becoming a motif strung throughout both the music and the lyrics. In her first album, tUnE-yArDs portrayed some conflicts between animalism and the harsh impositions of proper society. “w h o k i l l” is no different in this respect.

Much of the album seems to occupy itself with a hyper-percussive, almost funky but innate sense of nature. The appeal of her music is clear; Garbus knows what it means to access the animal instinct, and she produces music that mimics that perfectly. From the occasional spare drumming and bass to the percussive use of her own voice as part of the rhythm, Garbus refines her sound while keeping that rawness she became known for.

This dichotomy is most apparent in the single “Bizness,” in which Garbus’ barely wrinkled vocals are contrasted with a background texture comprised of layers of instrumentals and loops of rhythmic vocal gibberish.

While less elaborate, “Doorstep” contains the same elements of vocal layering and percussion. The main vocals here are much smoother than with “Bizness” — they’re almost soothing and, as a result, “Doorstep” stands out as one of the best tracks on the album. “Powa” accomplishes the same; “Wooly Wolly Going,” while also quieter and simpler, is much more pensive and ethereal.

It is important to note, however, that this is an experimental album and as such will contain some seemingly obtuse and extremely abstract elements of sound. “Es-so,” the second track on the album, frequently descends into a ruckus of discordance and noise.

In similar abstract fashion, “Riotriot” and “Gangsta” both straddle the dangerous line of muddled coherence. At one point, “Gangsta” is interrupted by a snippet of conversation about the taping process. More effective is how “Riotriot” breaks into Garbus’ lyrical proclamation, “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand / And like I’ve never felt before,” before diving straight back into a layered jam.

Not only is the breadth of sound in this album extraordinary, but the contrasting levels of coherence and abstraction of musical atmosphere make this album a masterpiece of experimentation. From the organic elements of the consciously included lo-fi messiness to the electronic intensity, the sound Garbus creates seems both deliberate and innate, and her inventiveness in using vocal samples as rhythm is absolutely brilliant.

While the music contained in “w h o k i l l” is certainly abstract, it never becomes unlistenable; listeners willing to wander into tUnE-yArDs’ experimental rainforest of sound will not be disappointed with what they find.

Rating: 5/5 Stars