"Do you wanna live?” Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards screamed at crowds across the world this year, brow furrowed and voice a low growl, like she’d personally be over with her warpaint to sort you out if you didn’t answer yes. That attitude runs through ‘Whokill’, from ballsy sex-song ‘Powa’ to the elated ‘You Yes You’, on an album that could have garnered sneers for its theatrical honesty, but instead earned Tune-Yards an army of fans. ‘Whokill’ has originality in spades. A student of African dance, Garbus has rhythm running under her skin. But where she appropriates African styles it’s more Tony Allen than Peter Gabriel. Music to dance to, not sing along to. Which is lucky: you’d be hard pressed to follow the combination of screams, whoops and purrs that make up Garbus’ vocal range.
The album’s mixture of politics and real life, strained through an infectious concoction of African rhythms, yodeling and the clatter of drums, is a huge leap forward from the fried bedroom sounds of 2009’s ‘Bird-Brains’. With studio equipment and growing confidence, Garbus peeled away the fuzz of her debut to make new songs that blasted and shone.
Under the glorious noise, stories lurk. Surprised by sudden riots while she was living in Montreal, Garbus penned the soft menace of ‘Riotriot’ (“Right before it happens, there’s no sign at all”). On ‘Gangsta’, sirens wail around the suburbs as anger rises in the hearts of kids trapped inside houses. Later, living in Oakland, Garbus wrote ‘Doorstep’ in response to the police shooting of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day, 2009. “Don’t tell me the cops are right in a wrong like this,” she whispers, lyrics lost in Latin textures, unless you’re paying attention.
Garbus aims shots of her own kind at America, the “world gone wrong” in ‘Wolly Wolly Gong’ that’s “walkin’ all over you” in ‘My Country’. But if ‘Whokill’ is angry, it doesn’t give apathy the time of day. This is a radical album that’s emerged at a radical time, when riots and rallies are making a comeback and people are feeling, for once, like they don’t have to shut up and suck it up. Maybe that’s why, when Garbus screams, “”, the growing crowds before her go mental. HS
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