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tUnE-yArDs W H O K I L L
Released 15 April 2011
Producer Merrill Garbus
Label 4AD
Length 41:53
Genre Alternative
Website tune-yards.com
95

Like many others, I was charmed by the merits of Merrill Garbus’s (AKA tUnE-yArDs) bedroom-produced debut, Bird-Brains which was self-released on cassette until new label 4AD released a limited edition version on vinyl. For the major label-backed follow-up, she has left the confinements of her bedroom, causing some concern that a bigger production and studio sheen might dilute the charm of her first and add unneeded frills. Thankfully, these doubts were unfounded; where Bird-Brains was raw, energetic and bursting with ideas, on new album W H O K I L L, ideas are fully realised, with the outcome a fully accomplished experimental pop album where multiples styles and influences are incorporated and fitted together.

Often when you feel an artist should settle on one style, it’s because they have tried several without realising any well, a call for them to pick one so they can at least be mediocre at that. In this case, the album is completely erratic and all the better for it. Before she layered sound to create a collage of textures, now she uses the studio to elaborate this pursuit, as opposed to taking shortcuts. Her mastery over her voice continues to be astounding, wailing and screeching one moment, then sultry and soothing like an R & B singer the next. This ability to attain total control, but sound so wild and untamed in the process, is an astounding juxtaposition.

Opener 'My Country', with its African rhythm and percussion is a fantastic beginning to the album, setting an energetic tone that persists through the album, working as a lift-me-up for a difficult morning, but equally at home on the dancefloor. That said, lines like "The worst thing about living a lie is just wondering if they’ll find out" testify that lyrics are as important to tUnE-yArDs as instrumental and vocal exploration, although the album remains fiercely experimental throughout without ever losing its overall pop quality. With such diversions in sound and approach, each track could have been recorded by a different artist, evident in follow up track, 'Es-So's variable percussive beginning, the infectious electric guitar kick-start, and the arrival of vocals like some warped instrument built from samples of all the female greats. The way she plays with her voice is mirrored by the way she plays with the many instruments and influences, using loud, distorted bass beats to upset, unsettle and force attention. On 'Gangsta', in particular you’ll be reaching for the player, convinced of malfunction. A clever ploy to see if you’re still engaged, but she needn’t have worried, as it would be impossible not to be.

There is another percussion blast off on 'Doorstep' which sounds like it’s going to become a mutated version of Brenton Wood’s 'Oogum Boogum', but is steeped in such social consciousness that when  we arrive midway and Merrill sings, "I’ve tried so hard to be a peaceful lovin’ woman", she’s more like a female  Marvin Gaye, circa 'What’s Going On'. But anxiety over police violence isn’t where this socially conscious stance ends. Lyrics throughout the album are concerned with things such as inequality and privilege ('My Country'), youth gang culture ('Gangsta'), sex and the possibilities of using it as a place to retreat to from modern life ('Powa'), as well as race ('Kila').

Overall, where Bird-Brains showed an erratic and brilliant ability to experiment, W H O K I L L fully realises her talent. In an age where the public are going gaga for the subverted notion of a pop star, they should look to here, beyond the theoretical, visual idea for a truly anti-establishment type figure. The most popular female singer at the moment might be an unconventional-looking chubby English girl, but that doesn’t prevent her from being infuriatingly bland. Merrill Garbus offers us all things in abundance; with her startling voice, self-assured feminist approach and boundless talent, she is maverick manifest. Pop singers get kudos for recording great pop songs all the time, but they are backed by teams of writers, overpaid stylists and image consultants. Garbus comes fully formed.

- Ray Burke