Singer/songwriter/musician Merrill Garbus, who operates under the pseudonym tUnE-yArDs, drew tremendous attention at this year's SXSW Festival in Austin with her bracing live performance. The Montreal native, who moved to Oakland several years ago, created a stir in 2009 with an impressive lo-fi debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, a collection of homespun, solo-performed, multi-layered songs employing an overachieving do-it-yourself aesthetic (with the inclusion of loops, samples and deft editing). With her new release, w h o k i l l, Garbus has elevated her music further, leaving the confines of home recording and expanding her sonic presentation in an actual studio with the assistance of a number of Oakland-based musicians. The result is stunning.
Garbus is a deconstructionist. Even the "tUnE-yArDs" spelling is something beyond a simple shtick. The multi-instrumentalist songwriter manages to deconstruct her musical influences, ranging from African to R&B and soul, contemporary rock (namely Deerhoof), No Wave and Black gospel to doo-wop, reconfiguring them into complex and fascinating collages. Lyrically, Garbus often deconstructs definitions of politics -- personal or in general.
"My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, how come I cannot see my future within your eyes?" questions émigré Garbus in w h o k i l l's opening cut, "My Country." "Is there something?" she asks. "Nothing I can see so as I can see something as mine." Garbus pushes her vocals forcefully over dizzying layers of pounding percussion, Afropop riffs (played through a synthesizer) and free jazz saxophone bursts.
Just as Garbus uses eclectic influences in her music, she also exhibits a wide range with her vocals, from smoky R&B a la Etta James to African icon Mariam Makeba, often shifting in delivery within a single song.
Garbus' mastery of production and editing is unmistakable (including "home" and found recordings and looping). Working with the assistance of bassist Nate Brennan, who co-wrote four songs and also tours with tUnE-yArDs, she has taken her time crafting her songs, allowing for more space than her previous effort. And though the compositions are dense, they never feel overdone. Garbus also has used the studio to "warm" her voice, while heightening the clarity of her eccentric orchestration, creating a texture distinct from her debut without sacrificing the aggressive punch.
From inflections of hip hop in "Gangsta," the skeletal reggae beat of "Powa," and the Radiohead-like riff of "Riotriot," Garbus clearly exhibits an ability to distill disparate influences and synthesize them into a unique form, with an oddly organic approach as opposed to a cleverly manufactured one (like The Books, for example). w h o k i l l is an inventive, engaging and fun work propelled by Garbus' exuberance, and one of the finest records to be released so far this year.