tUnE-yArDs' Experimental Pop Is a Strange Pill to Swallow
With new album w h o k i l l, Merrill Garbus — the fearless, ferociously talented woman behind beatnik pop outfit tUnE-yArDs — aims for the history books.
"I always want to be at the forefront of progressive pop, like Deerhoof or the Dirty Projectors," Garbus says. "They're changing the way we hear pop music."
On a Monday afternoon in late October, Garbus is attempting to buffer the strain of long travel time and a criminally hectic album cycle. "I've essentially bungled my afternoon," she tells the New Times as she rides aboard a train in the San Francisco area.
Garbus thrives on chaos. W h o k i l l (the title gently satirizes the informal speech patterns used in digital communications) is an album of unceasing grandeur and delirious ambition. Garbus' tracks pile on weird vocal tics and avant-freak instrumental flourishes with a casual riskiness that suggests insanity. Quips Garbus, "There were so many voices I had to block out when I was recording the album. Like, I'm not even sure if I like it. What will other people think?"
Songs like "Gangsta" and "Riotriot" jettison traditional song structure in favor of stoned bliss-pop and ethereal repetition. With its '70s-style psych-jazz breakdown, "Bizness" would sound at home on a Sharon Jones or Mavis Staples album, but Garbus delivers an impassioned call to arms for social reform. Other tracks recall Manu Dibango, Fela Kuti, or Peter Gabriel, circa Up.
"I got a little rebellious," Garbus admits. "I strove for a more difficult, less accessible sound. It wasn't lo-fi in definition, but if there was a cruddy old tape recorder, it was like, 'Shall we record on that? Yes, we shall.'"
Garbus released the first tUnE-yArDs album, 2009's Bird-Brains, via the chronically hip Portland imprint Marriage Records. Bird-Brains was abrasive and enigmatic, however, whereas w h o k i l l maintains a noble fidelity to the clean, polyrhythmic grooves of traditional Afrobeat. If Vampire Weekend reprises Graceland's globe-spanning pop sounds, then w h o k i l l sounds like it could reverberate through the dusky summer streets of Bamako during the WAFU Nations Cup.
Indeed, w h o k i l l is an immersive spectacle of mind-fucking, life-affirming proportions. It hits all your pleasure centers even as it leaps wildly from one genre to the next; in fact, with its dense sonics and atmospheric sprawl, the album is a fairly conclusive metaphor for metropolitan living.
"The album is definitely informed by urban life," Garbus says, taking pains to note that she recorded w h o k i l l in Oakland. "There's such fuel around here. Oakland gets a bad rep because of its violence, but that's only partially true."
"It's a hub of humanity," she continues. "There's smog and traffic and people and excitement — Occupy Oakland is exciting."
For all its fearlessness and fusion, w h o k i l l easily could have alienated listeners if handled in less poised hands. The record molds its influences (most notably R&B and psychedelic electro-folk) into strange, distorted new shapes, creating a sound that defies easy compartmentalization. "The R&B tag is a lot less alienating than 'eclectic, experimental pop music,'" Garbus laughs.
"I was like, 'Dude, this is too weird,'" Garbus says of w h o k i l l standout "Es-So." "The lyrics are weird, the jangly beat is weird, everything is weird. I'm surprised how many people said that was their favorite song on the album — I was so insecure about it." All told, Garbus' weirder instincts have paid off swimmingly.
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