Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Case Sensitive

tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l (4AD)

It seems as if everyone has been talking about this second album from Merrill Garbus - to the extent that it's almost tempting to veer into stubborn hype avoidance mode and simply ignore it. This would be a massive mistake though, for this album is every bit as wonderful and inventive as Garbus'type-setting is infuriating.

Garbus' solo debut Bird-Brains (OK, I can't be bothered with the upper and lower cases now) gradually worked its way to cult status, its extremely erratic recording quality failing to detract from Garbus' anything-goes approach. If anything, the frequently maxed out distortion added to the record's immense charms.

whokill is a different beast, however. It's more carefully edited, and its relatively concise running time definitely works in its favour. Also, it sees Garbus entering a professional recording studio for the first time, polishing her craft while retaining the essence of her maverick, scattershot style (The backing vocals on Gangsta are as harsh and biting as anything on Bird-Brains). In addition to whatever imaginative, creative merit this album undoubtedly has - the first impression of Garbus' ingenious work is that it is tremendous fun.

Garbus' approach is both brutally direct and wondrously wayward. Sometimes it feels as if she is throwing absolutely everything at the wall - whokill has avant garde saxophone freak-outs, Nigerian hi life style guitars and thunderous lo-fi drums. What holds it together is the element that reigns triumphantly over the melee - Garbus' jagged, unconventional voice. It's hard to find parallels for Garbus' style, but it seems to be influenced as much by hip-hop and dancehall toasting as by soul and more traditional forms of soundcraft. It is likely to be as polarising as the strange, intervalic daring of Dave Longstreth or the saccharine swoop of Joanna Newsom. For me, Garbus' versatility alone makes her an important vocal talent - she can be overpowering at one moment, the next expressing stark, naked vulnerability. When Riotriot stops and she belts out 'there is a freedom in violence I don't understand' with all the force in her lungs, it is genuinely disturbing, and yet somehow also strangely euphoric.

For all its sonic onslaught, whokill also has moments of disarming tenderness. Powa begins with strummed guitars and Garbus' fragile falsetto, before moving into more gutsy territory (Garbus' warped take on classic rock perhaps). Wooly Wooly Gong is more delicate still - a beautiful, haunting moment amidst some turbulent surroundings. These juxtapositions are always handled with thought and are carefully constructed. Garbus is clearly constantly alive to the possibilities of sound and timbre.

This is an important record - one that really establishes Garbus as a major female talent to watch alongside the likes of Bjork and Kate Bush. She is a true idiosyncratic individual, fully deserving of the hype and attention.

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