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Published: 2011/05/31
by Tom Volk

W h o k i l l

4ad Records

If there were ever an artist who encapsulates all that has changed about the music industry in the last decade or so than Merrill Garbus, aka tUnE-YaRdS, is it. Somewhere out there is a graph showing the exponential curve that spells out the jarring increase in speed in which music can be conceived, recorded, disseminated and digested in these times. It should be the cover for Garbus’ next album.

Only two years ago she was recording her debut album, Bird-Brains, onto a handheld voice recorder, presumably in some apartment bedroom. A little uneven it nonetheless contained some moments of sheer brilliance and lo-fi splendor. Thanks to some high profile critical buzz and a snippet of “Fiya” on a Blackberry commercial, word began to spread about Garbus’ vocal range and her beefheart-eqsue quirkiness. Fast forward to the present day and she has been featured in some not-insignificant national magazine pieces and is signed to 4AD, home to a staggering number of bands at the forefront of indie rock: Deerhunter, Iron and Wine and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Grafitti. Garbus’ talent is inarguable but all this adulation isn’t exactly the kind that has been earned by sleeping on couches for 10 years.

Not only is her success a reflection of the times but her music is very much of the moment as well. An amalgamation of hip hop beats, afro pop and art rock blended into a sometimes powerful indie stew, she has the rare ability to synthesize all of those things without producing material that seems overwrought. Smartly eschewing the lo-fi confines of her debut album , the best of w h o k I l l features infectious hooks, layered beats and a range of vocals that spans glass breaking high notes to down right growling.

Right off the bat “My Country” lets you know that Garbus’ palate has expanded. Her howling vocals are painted by expansive synth riffs and a horn hook that positively struts against the driving tempo. Wasting no time with a powerful follow up, “Es-So” sounds like it could have been a backing track for A Tribe Called Quest at some point, which is about the highest praise I can possibly give to an indie rock track touched with a hip hop influence. It is a powerful opening combo whose momentum the rest of the album doesn’t quite sustain.

That’s not to say it’s all downhill from track three on but the first two remind me of watching old Mike Tyson fights from when he was in his late teens; they were note-perfect displays of power that were over in a flash.

The rest of the fare on offer is a little uneven but still more than worth a spin. “Powa” is perhaps the most straightforward track Garbus has recorded to date, satisfying pop punctured by stabbing electric ukulele chords and playful low to high vocals. “Bizness,” the albums first single, is the most overtly African influenced track which blends perfectly with her searching vocals and whimsical horn arrangements. The album closes with “Killa” which, improbably, succeeds in mixing early 80’s-ish hip hop beats, more electric ukulele riffs and just about every vocal trick Garbus has in her arsenal into a really satisfying track that doesn’t seem overdone.

It’s all another big leap in the right direction for Merrill Garbus. If Bird Brains was the place to go to mine a few lo-fi gems than w h o k I l l is one that yields more refined pop with a much better batting average than the former. At this rate who knows where she will be in six months. All I know is that I am not going to take my eye off of her, lest I miss something.

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