Two types of thoughts bump into each other when you listen to tUnE-yArDs’ newest record, w h o k i l l: the first are thoughts of pleasantness, of interesting sounds and melodies, of talented musicians and elegant, confident vocals. But the second set of thoughts are thoughts of violence, of someone exerting their powere against you, making you FEEL what they WANT you to feel. The miracle of this record, though, is that these thoughts actually work together to create something altogether new and unexpected.
It’s the most fun and sophisticated beat-down you’ll ever experience.
I’ll try to paint the picture a little more clearly: it’s like a close-harmony group, something like The Andrews Sisters, shed their conservative knee-length dresses for bright colors and facepaint and started getting REAL and punching people in the face, all while shouting tribal chants to the heavens. It’s a sweaty, propulsive record, filled with really complex sonic ideas and moving, fascinating, and creative singing, and damnit if you’re going to just sit there and LISTEN to it.
With the mixture of sounds she yanked together here, and how expertly she’s constructed what could be a mess, tUnE-yArDs mastermind Merrill Garbus could almost take a pass as far as lyrics are concerned. But it’s not just a fascinating piece of music, it’s also ABOUT something: it’s about power. And violence.
There WAS something pretty primal and immediate about a lot of tUnE-yArDs’ first album, BiRd-BrAiNs, but here, it’s almost as if the violent push of people against other people, and people against themselves, has taken center stage. This record is about the politics of power, both internal and external.
The lead-off single “Bizness,” for instance, is an excoriation of the commoditization of passion. Another standout, “Gangsta,” is a warning to would-be tough guys about the consequences of that tough pose. “Es-So” is mere INCHES away from being a gangsta rap track, with it’s old-school hip-hop beats and to-the-point playfulness (“I gotta do right if my body’s tight, right?”), even while it’s also wrestling angrily with some seriously complex issues. And the song “Killa” speaks for itself, what a diss track would sound like if it were attacking a pose or attitude instead of another rapper.
There’s also a moment that makes Garbus’s fascination with physicality and forcefulness explicit. It’s in “Riotriot,” a world-music-influenced freakout: the groove drops out, and Garbus’s lone voice almost shouts, “there is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand, and like I’ve never felt before.” She’s expressing that thing that’s blasted open since the last record; it’s that freedom in violence that gives w h o k i l l its entirely unique and utterly fascinating energy.
The weapon that Garbus primarily uses to capture that energy is her voice. For my money, there is no artist using their voice as fully, fascinatingly, freely and completely as Garbus. The album is peppered with intimate and breathy singer-songwriter moments, but it’s also run through with these leaping, piercing arpeggios. One of my favorite Garbus tricks is the prieviously mentioned acapella shout in “Riotriot.” But it’s not just a toneless shout; even through the closed-off, biting sound, it’s pitch-perfect and actually kind of melodic.
Garbus also isn’t afraid to play around with dissonance and weird chords. Her melodies are sometimes simple and elegant and pretty, but they’ll often jump to, and then linger on, an unexpected interval.
One great example is the almost-motown, sha-na-na filled “Doorstep” (a song about a good man being gunned down): what is otherwise a charming major-scale melody has just one moment of unease that makes the repeated, fluttery refrain feel slightly off-kilter. And that pays off BIG TIME when the bottom drops, leaving just a tambourine and a kick, and the immaculate melody of the bridge hits you.
Moment to moment, every song on this record is doing things like this: setting up expectations and subverting them, pushing you around with these beautifully shaped sonic gems, both jagged and smooth.
The album closes with “Killa,” the aforementioned hipster diss track. “I’m so hip, I cannot TAKE it,” Garbus yells, and it’s true; most people as hip as her wouldn’t be able to take it. But Garbus is not just hip; she’s also endlessly creative and filled with complex and fascinating ideas about power and about music. That’s better than hip could ever be.
Photo credit: sarahana.