The best song on California singer/songwriter Merrill Garbus’s second album under the name tUnE-yArDs comes three songs in. “Gangsta” begins with thumping toms and expressive bass as Garbus juxtaposes growls, screams and falsettos in her characteristically unhinged voice. However, as it progresses, the track begins to disintegrate. Garbus’s warning of, “Never move to my hood / ‘Cause danger is crawling out the wood,” gets chopped and rearranged as horns atonally blurt out the sirens signaling the track’s collapse. It’s a fascinating situation to listen to, because it sounds like Garbus’s own insanity is causing the track to implode. It plays out like she is bouncing off the walls of a house that’s crumbling around her, so dedicated to her own insanity that she causes the negative feedback through which the song is destroyed.
The only song on w h o k i l l that gets close to matching that glorious cacophony is last track, “Killa”. In that track, Garbus exerts her dominance by abusing the listener with riveting threats like “I’m a new kinda woman, a don’t take shit from you kinda woman.” “Read or not, I’m a new kinda killa,” she hollers and you’d almost feel your life was in danger if you were to doubt her. Eventually, her madness proves too cumbersome for one voice and Garbus splits herself into two characters, each ranting into a speaker like it’s the time-out corner. “I’m so hip!” hilariously yells one Garbus. The track is so deranged that I literally cannot think of a way that it could be performed live short of Garbus, night after night, cutting herself in half and having each side scream at opposite sides of the venue.
There are a lot of smaller moments on w h o k i l l that utilize the freakiness featured so prominently on “Gangsta” and “Killa”. “My Country” is a pretty chaotic opener, Garbus again juxtaposing double tracked screams with fragile falsettos before a honking saxophone steals the show in the track’s second half. Both it and lead single “Bizness” employ abstract vocal manipulations that are reminiscent of Jònsi’s “Go Do”. Throughout the album, Garbus proves to be an enthralling vocal acrobat, often coupling her demented performances with lyrics just as gasp inducing. The centerpiece of “Riotriot” is when the song stops so that Garbus can holler, “There is a freedom in violence that I will never understand!” a line ripe for analysis because it walks that enviable line between brilliant social commentary and pure nonsense. And it’s hard not to have a strong reaction to the last line in “Es-So”. “I ran over my own body with my own car,” she softly sings over rambling guitar. And yes, you should feel bad for laughing at that line.
But I guess my main criticism of w h o k i l l is that there are six tracks between “Gangsta” and “Killa”. Many critics have been citing the album’s entirety as a jaw-dropping spectacle as if to say Garbus is constantly hurling herself at your speaker system. In fact, aside from those two tracks, Garbus exercises significant restraint on w h o k i l l. When inspected, many of the album’s qualities that one might consider strange actually stem from slight tweaks of African rhythms. And when that aspect is further inspected, Garbus’s use of these African influences proves to be no more bizarre than their use by Vampire Weekend. I think when critics speak of w h o k i l l being divisive for its off-kilter nature, they are referring more to Garbus than the album, itself, which is an important distinction. While Garbus is clearly the bananas in the w h o k i l l fruit salad, the album’s arrangements do not always support her over her numerous creative hurtles.
Which isn’t to say that there is a bad moment on w h o k i l l as a result of this. It just means that the album becomes a lot more conventional in the time between “Gangsta” and “Killa”. Garbus crafts some positively immaculate vocal harmonies on “Doorstep”, singing sha-la-la’s in the background while she pleads over a relationship in the process of breaking. You may be surprised to find that a majority of the tracks on the album begin with slow builds instead of a swift kick in the face. In fact, the longest song on w h o k i l l, “Woolywollygong”, is a dark acoustic number. In the track, Garbus sings a lullaby to a sleeping a figure, as if the song itself is being used to ward off boogiemen. Despite its creepy guitar riff and spare percussion, “Woolywollygong” is oddly beautiful, Garbus’s voice reliably accommodating to the track’s uneasy nature.
The unfortunate thing is that the slower songs in between those two misfit anthems that I have mentioned in all this review’s paragraphs now feel slow to start in comparison, even bordering on lulls at times. Each track on w h o k i l l has its own personality, but the fact that they don’t go all out and don’t throw caution to the wind keeps the album from becoming the oddball Mecca it very well could have been. So, while, I do not dislike a moment of w h o k i l l, these moments of relative quiet make the album good and centered as opposed to radical and great.
While it would be more courteous to praise Garbus for keeping w h o k i l l grounded with more straightforward topics and arrangements, I honestly wish she hadn’t. Not every album needs to be an all-encompassing utopia of balanced extremes; sometimes it’s appropriate for an album to just never let up and it’s a little frustrating that Garbus was significantly contained on this release. For all my talk of softness and self-control, though, w h o k i l l is still one of the more unique and off-putting albums you will hear this year. I just wish it had gone the full Monty in terms of wall-to-wall craziness. Then it would have been a real treat to hear peoples’ reactions to it.