Progress is a funny thing. It’s traditional for indie bands to follow their first colourless albums with one slate-grey record after another, only this time around sounding much bigger and more like [a]U2[/a]. For this they are inevitably hailed for their – ugh – ‘maturity’. Maturity. This isn’t bloody cheese making. By all means learn a new instrument, start a Korg collection if you must, but once a band even thinks about consolidating on success they become as interesting as a variable rate mortgage. Much more profitable than venture-capitalist rock is to do as they do on the fringes: refine and stretch and bend an idea with a near-demented single-mindedness, like New England’s Merrill Garbus does on the follow-up to her homespun 2009 debut, ‘Bird-Brains’.
She’s moved up in the world, has Merrill. Signing to the 4AD label – and the patronage of a mobile phone company – helped her move her enterprise from bedroom to studio, and swap a Dictaphone for proper 21st-century mics. But there’s nothing in this freewheeling carnival of an album to suggest Garbus went all po-faced and followed any direction, save for the excitable, skittery beat of her heart. Reverb apart, even the technology afforded by the studio was overlooked in favour of Garbus clanging and thwacking stuff, employing something credited as ‘group noise’ on ‘Riotriot’, and, the joyful, flailing sound of ‘Gangsta’, swinging her ukulele, synths and horns about like a kid at Christmas.
‘Whokill’ is an eddying, rhythmic record stirred by joy, compassion and fury. Garbus is both intelligible and joyfully righteous, like she actually enjoys (gasp) living and making music, playing songs to soundtrack a defiant, flower-powered dance in the face of the world’s most miserable reactionaries.
Every influences – the wiry, tropical Ur-riot grrrl of The Slits and The Raincoats, reverb-loaded dub, West African juju music, R&B, voodoo blues and the playful odd-pop of Micachu and Yoko – share a vitality and an inspirational voice of dissent. ‘Doorstep’ has a party-terminating subject – what went on in Garbus’ Oakland community after an unarmed black man was shot dead by police – but it’s rendered as off-kilter gospel with fluid harmonies and a melodic sweetness so it sounds like a classic, politically motivated lover’s rock anthem.
If we’re being as honest as she is, the album does overstep the mark on ‘You Yes You’, in which Garbus yelps “What’s that about?” like a bad sitcom catchphrase she desperately wants to catch on. But these songs, from their wry, provocative, OTT style to their cosmic hip-hop titles, including the creepy lullaby ‘Wooly Wolly Gong’, make Garbus a weird kindred spirit of [a]MIA[/a]. And no-one’s ever called her boring or mature. Almost in spite of everything that’s going on in the majority of these irrepressible, irresistible songs – from ‘Powa’, with its huge, warm soul voice, to ‘Bizness’, an Afro-pop cacophony that could blow down a high-rise – they groove preternaturally.
It’s as if Garbus is powered by primal, wrong-righting spirits that click like a force of nature. Here’s to never growing up, because this is the opposite of maturity, the true raw state of childhood, more Where The Wild Things Are than CBeebies: fierce, feral and fun.