Of all the singular descriptions you could attach to Merrill Garbus’ Tune-Yards project—feminist indie pop, lo-fi, African juju reinterpretation, post-singer songwriter, self-confessional, experimental uke-pop—none of them seem particularly adequate. It’s because, apart from a lot of the bands working in the indie paradigm right now, Tune-Yards is one of the few without any clear antecedents, and none of those things entirely encapsulates Tune-Yards' unique sound. You can’t say Tune-Yards has any clear influences, and there’s no easy “band X meets band Y” log line here. But at the same time that Tune-Yards is forward thinking, its music is also familiarly comfortable. While I can’t recall hearing any other group layering ukulele and vocal loops to create fantastically warped singles, Tune-Yards’ splendid sophomore album, w h o k i l l, still feels like something my Carole King-listening mom would have understood in 1973.
The main plotline surrounding the release of w h o k i l l is that instead of recording the album on a digital voice recorder like she did for 2009’s Bird-Brains, Garbus instead decamped to a studio with a bassist and some other musicians. At first, this lo-fi to high-fi transition seems like the kind of thing journalists cook up for a hook in brief magazine profiles, but in this case, it pays quantifiable dividends. Garbus considerably beefed up her sonic palette, adding windmill percussion, bawdy saxophones and a tethering bass to her ukulele and voice-led tracks. It’s hard to imagine that Garbus would have been capable of a single as transcendent as “Bizness” or “Powa,” the two runaway highlights here, when she was recording into tiny speaker. The best stuff here glistens with beauty underneath Garbus’ distinctive wail, proving that, at least in this case, the lo-fi sounds was a means, not necessarily an aesthetic choice.
The bigger thing that the higher fidelity accomplishes, however, is further cementing Garbus’ position as an ascendant star. She has a unique voice, capable of packing a serious punch on “Powa,” floating by on unconventional harmonies on “Es-so,” ascending to an army of wails on “Gangsta,” and pulling off dub-inflected ballads like “Doorstep.” But most importantly, Garbus has improved by leaps and bounds lyrically, confronting topics like poverty and living lies, a police shooting, the nastiness and lack of control involved in sex, the collision of art and commerce, authenticity, and what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. That subject matter could easily be gobbled up by/written off as singer songwriter clichés, but it’s to Garbus’ credit that even when she gets her most hokey (“Wooly Wolly Gong”), it’s still (mostly) enthralling.
Despite being a masterful album that advances Garbus' form to its thrilling conclusions, Tune-Yards, and w h o k i l l, is probably destined to go down as one of those bands/albums that “has to be seen live.” There’s a certain truth to that—Garbus’ coming out party was at SXSW this year, and her performances were amongst the most talked about—since seeing someone loop vocals and ukulele in person is more impressive in person than on wax. And that’s fine. But know this: w h o k i l l is one of the year’s most remarkable albums, a triumph of the unique vision of one of the best up-and-coming songwriters in indie. Garbus might be more known right now as a magnetic performer, but w h o k i l l proves she’s just as beguiling on record.