I’ve only been listening to my favorite album of the year for the past few weeks. While I had heard good things about it since its release in April, I had consciously avoided the album. Chalk it up to aNoYaNcE with C A P I T A L I Z A T I O N. When I finally took a listen, I knew immediately it would rise to the top of my list. In a year when many releases had a familiar pop alternative tameness (with a large dose of folk from northwest bands), W H O K I L L sounds like nothing else released this year, at least in the States. With its upbeat African sensibility, quirky vocals, and stray jazz riffs, the album has a level of risk so often avoided this year by other bands. And it pays off.
tUnEyArDs is primarily Merrill Garbus, a looping machine, ukelele, drums, and sax. The first song, “My Country,” establishes her cred. “My country ’tis of thee,” she sings, but with its springy beat and vocal style echoing something like the Mahotella Queens, it sounds like she could be referring to South Africa or Mali. For a further disconnect, the sunny style evident in this song and others is belied by a clear stream of protest running beneath. This is most evident in the later song “Doorstep,” about a police shooting. Toward the middle of the album, in “Gangsta” Garbus unleashes a driving edginess from some third world street in the slums of Rio (or Detroit) that could be straight out of the movie “City of God.” Violence is a recurring theme in the work, and she reveals some swagger, like MIA but without the Tamil Tiger gunplay. In her concluding song “Killa,” the most self-referential and perhaps the weakest song of the bunch, she declares herself a “new kind of woman” whose violence is constrained by her music.
If you want to see a great demonstration of the construction of this album, and of live looping itself, tUnEyArDs’ performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts (or the video from KEXP above) serves well. One note, however. Perhaps the biggest disconnect with tUnEyArDs is Garbus herself. With all the worldliness of her album, it may come as a bit of surprise that it emanates from a young white woman with a side mullet, looking like she stepped straight off of a liberal arts campus somewhere. To me, this makes the album all the more remarkable, its musical genius in its ability to transport the listener elsewhere.