It’s easy to be skeptical of tUnE-yArDs without hearing even a measure of music—there’s something equally elite and childish about the stylization of Merrill Garbus’s alias. The old adage that warns readers not to judge a book by its cover is certainly relevant here, but only to a certain degree. Don’t judge w h o k i l l, the sophomore album of tUnE-yArDs, solely on its alternating capitalization and strange spacing; to neglect such a phenomenally innovative album would be a travesty. However, do consider yourself warned that the next forty minutes of listening will be anything but conventional.
On BiRd-BrAiNs, tUnE-yArDs’s first album, the sonic quality is considerably more lo-fi, a result of Garbus recording solely using a voice recorder, without any studio time. This departure has led to a more refined, richer texture on the album, and the added instrumentation is certainly a welcome addition to w h o k i l l.
One standout track, “Gangsta,” is punctuated by lush and brassy instrumentation. The saxophones are jarring and unexpected, but the dissonance isn’t frustrating. Rather, “Gangsta” is a track with ridiculous yet powerful vocals that pulses with rhythm. “Powa,” which immediately follows the playful instrumentation of “Gangsta,” features a slower tempo and guitars that are less frantic and more sprawling; it’s playful, yet not as in-your-face, and Garbus’s vocals are certainly the most prominent feature on the track. She is able to hit the high notes and sustain them with a flourish that sets her apart from other female singer-songwriters dominant in the current independent music scene. “Bizness,” the first single from w h o k i l l, is a looping tune with playful and whimsical vocalizing that manages to swell with its chorus and never lose traction.
Despite the extreme stylization and complexity of instrumentation, no lyrical depth is lost, and the album is rife with political themes. Garbus writes and sings from her own liberal arts background, a result of her Smith College education, and her remarks are varied and provoking without being preachy. “Doorstep” was inspired in part by the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Joannes Mehserle in Oakland, California, where Garbus herself currently lives. The track isn’t necessarily dependent on that event, however, as the song is able to unite joyous vocalizations with grim lyrical content. The song is propelled by strong percussive elements; there’s an incessant tapping, along with snare drums, kick drums, and the clash of a tambourine as Garbus’s rousing vocals channel girl groups of bygone eras. It certainly leaves an impression on the listener.
“Riotriot” sonically drifts until Garbus proclaims, “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand,” and the song bursts: Horns blast and, suddenly, the track is a dissonant explosion. Another politically-minded track is “My Country,” a song that contains the famed lyrics of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” but concludes with the statement, “The worst thing about living a lie is just wondering when they’ll find out.” The political sentiments on w h o k i l l aren’t the focal point of the album, but they still strike a chord with listeners.
On “Killa,” the album closer, Garbus proclaims herself a “new kind of woman,” and she makes it very clear that she’s not going to put up with anything from anybody. The song is jaunty, upbeat, and downright catchy. “I cannot take it, I’m so hip/ I’m hip like a yuppie is hip,” she sings, and then follows it up by proclaiming, “I’m so hip!”; the lyrics are dripping in satire. Although Garbus is being ironic, she’s no less forceful and witty.
w h o k i l l is experimental and exploratory, and it manages to be enjoyable even while discussing some dreary realities of today’s world. The album’s inspiration is drawn from a myriad of styles and locations—there are moments reminiscent of jazz, pop, R&B, dub, and African tunes, and, because no two songs are alike, the album is an enthralling listen from start to finish, despite the obnoxious spelling and spacing.