Wednesday, April 20, 2011

tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L (2011) REVIEW

November last year 2010 saw the release of the double album "Tradi-Mods Vs. Rockers - Alternative Takes on Congotronics" on the crucial Belgian label Crammed Discs, where 26 artists from all over the world contribute their own personal takes on more than 30 year old true Congolese Konono N°1's as well as 'supergroup' Kasai Allstars' music. The line-up is indeed pretty impressive and diverse : Juana Molina, Deerhoof, Animal Collective, Megafaun, Andrew Bird, Oneida, Jolie Holland, Wilco's Glenn Kotche, Burnt Friedman, Lonely Drifter Karen, Sylvain Chauveau to name some, all artists esthetically and culturally rather alien to electric Congolese music aka Congotronics. Crammed Discs' owner and curator of that project Marc Hollander could have added tUnE-yArDs aka Merrill Garbus to his project. Already her first album "BiRd-BrAiNs" in 2009 and surely the sophomore "W H O K I L L" today shows that tUnE-yArDs is one of the most African pop/rock project on the West side of the North Atlantic Ocean, yes more so than Vampire Weekend.

The first tUnE-yArDs album, "BiRd-BrAiN", was originally self-released by Merrill Garbus on recycled cassette tape. It was recorded using only a handheld voice recorder (1). Self-issuing recycled cassette tape is what we now call mixtape, mostly in the hip hop world, but it's also one of the only way African musicians are distributing their own music all over the African continent. Technically, Merrill Garbus performs live or in the studio with drum loops made on the spot, which she layers further with ukulele, homemade percussion, found sounds and her own very flexible and passionate voice. Just like Congotronics mentioned above, tUnE-yArDs' esthetics is totally that of DIY coupled with her own instruments handcrafting. The use of present tense is intentional because tUnE-yArDs' sophomore album "W H O K I L L" contains much of the same creative and recording process, except that this time Merrill Garbus used a proper studio, a bass player, Nate Brenner, who co-wrote some of the songs, and a soulful horn section. If the debut "BiRd-BrAiN" could sometimes sound exhausting because of its lofi at time saturated and wild delivery, "W H O K I L L" is a far more comfortable listen while Merrill Garbus hasn't lost anything of her contagious and confident energy.

Merrill Garbus is an extraordinary singer, African yodeling one minute, multi-harmonizing the other, approaching Afro-American female soul shouters here or lullabying mother like on the longest track of the album, "Wolly Wolly Gong", a song sustained by a simple ukulele chord, lofi crackling beats and the hum of the room. Despite its repetition and multiple loops, this song remains compelling and eventually affecting all along. This is also the only so-called ballad on the album.

The album begins with the recording of some field recording with a woman announcing "ladies and Gentlemen, Merril is performing at the...", we won't know where at because the characteristic tUnE-yArDs' drum loop enters the scene, quickly coupled with Garbus' African tweeting, also multi-tracked, and the proper song starts, fierce and full of energy. The beat runs throughout the song, speedy, nervous, noisy, with some rhythmic blasts of horns in the last quarter, and some tight synths for funky effect. The next song "Es-so" is even more layered, driven by a lofi punkish guitar, synths whizzes, Garbus' staccato vocals and acoustic double bass which made me think of 90s brilliant funk rock hip hop band Soul Coughing. "Gangsta" follows and it is one of the noisiest, most agitated and violent song on the album, one of the best too, where Merrill Garbus imitates police car's alarm siren, punctually going to over-saturation. A very carefully arranged track, expressing tension, a real patchwork of contrasting textures which seem to battle against each others to build some surprisingly infecting hard funk. The other slow song is "Powa", it enters very simply, just guitars, bass, drums and voice, neither multitracking, nor loops, until Merrill goes near a cappella, then some reverbs are added to the guitar while the vocals reach the highest register and show Merrill passionate and near virtuosic talent. "Riotriot" is delicately sustained by ukulele chords, double bass, insisting jazzy drums and even some piano notes, Merrill more whispering than singing until the song goes abruptly free jazz bursts then African punk with sax solo to get back to the delicacy of the beginning : another favorite. The single "Bizness" is typical tUnE-yArDs, looped tweeting vocals mixed with likembe, it seems, polyrythmic rim clicks and head hits on tom toms, then Merrill Garbus shouts like some trance-induced African griot and a very Talking Heads like bass line appears to produce a very danceable funk thing decorated with horns and guitar riffs. Very effective if slightly upsetting song. "Doorstep" gives some air to breathe with sustained and relatively slow tom toms beats and Garbus harmonized and melodic vocals. She sounds almost charming here with "shalala shalala shalala huwha huwha huwha" and her most soulful performance on the album. "You Yes You" is the most straightforward track, strongly relying on slightly anarchic and distorted electric guitars, rolling drums, funky bass and harmonized African sounding vocals. It is followed by the already mentioned long ballad "Wolly Wolly Gong". "Killa" ends the album with a lofi handmade hip hop beat, bass pulse, childlike melody line and almost unamplified electric guitar and ukulele. Garbus is almost rapping here with some talk and response moments and she wonders why she does not have more black male friends at the end of the song.

Concerning the last reference to Merrill Garbus' lyrics, I understand she wonders. To make it full circle with my little comparison with Vampire Weekend in the first paragraph of this review, tUnE-yArDs is indeed more Africa-pop/rock than Vampire Weekend's or David Byrne's or Paul Simon's because contrary to these guys, who are incorporating African music into their pop/rock, Merrill Garbus assimilates Western pop/rock into her African music. Merrill Garbus is definitely one grey-to-blue-eyed white-ass from New England, USA but she's African in her bones and in her soul. By being so, and by creating such idiosyncratic music, she is now one of the most original musical artists recording and performing today. Besides, the songs of that second album "W H O K I L L" are infinitely infectious and memorable. The sheer energy and little chaos could put you off a little bit at first listen, you'd be however surprised of the number of songs you will irrepressibly hum or sing out loud just afterwards. This album is an excellent example of music which can be at the same time very original and near immediately enjoyable, the richness and depth of each songs guaranteeing hundreds more gratifying listens.

7.5 out of 10


  • Bird-Brains (2009) - 6

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