Thursday, April 28, 2011

This Girl's an Afropop Gangsta. Tune Yards w h o k i l l Review.

By Tony Nunes, Dreaming Genius co-editor


Tune Yards new album title could be a question.  Who Kill?  The answer, Tune Yards do.  It could also be a statement meant to come after the groups name; Tune Yards Who Kill.  Whatever the answer, they indeed do kill it on their new album w h o k i l l, a punch-up experiment in layered textures of afropop, indie rock, and soul which give even the greatest and most unique voices in music something to contend with.
Merrill Garbus is that voice, an art-pop anomaly whose sheer range is pleasantly outside the norm of most indie artists today.  With Tune Yards, production value is something that is intrinsic and immediate as opposed to some boxed up arrangement of dull consistency.  The layering of Merrill’s vocals on w h o k i l l pairs with drumbeats, meaty bass, screaming sax and ukulele to build a fresh and new sound that uses on-the-spot loops to build momentum and dance inducing fervor.  As hard as it is to stray from vocal comparison, I find that embracing the comparisons in this case do Tune Yards more justice than discredit.  It’s from the dimensions of Garbus’ voice throughout w h o k i l l that comparisons to the drawls of Robert Plant and Freddie Mercury or the raps of Debbie Harry are entertained with glowing compliment.


‘My Country,’ the opening track of the album is a drum clapping anthem to the imperialist want riddled fa├žade hanging sarcastically over that “sweet land of liberty.”  Merill’s stacked vocals rain down with obvious but complacent irony as she riffs “the worst thing about living a lie is just wondering when they’ll find out.” Similarly hard hitting is ‘Gangsta,’ a pseudo-hardcore street anthem on which Merill ponders the identity conflicts of having an outsider status; “What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a gangsta?” 
Tune Yards are no outsiders, but they’re music is almost un-assignable to a specific genre, a trait that comfortably places them inside a class all their own.  The ominous lullaby of ‘Woolywollygang,’ scatting howls ala Freddie Mercury in ‘Yes Yes You’ and afrobeat Debbie Harry riffing on ‘Killa’ exhibit Tune Yards wide range of freshly mixed musical combinations. 
Throughout w h o k i l l Merill gives the sense that she’s an avid historian of the musical roots of African percussion, Jazz and southern influenced pop and folk.  No tracks show her devotion more than ‘Bizzness’ and ‘Powa.’ ‘Bizzness’ is a multi-instrumental infusion of flowing bass, sweeping guitar, chanting vocals, sticks, and polyrhythmic percussion with a Zulu roots influence that would make both Fela Kuti and David Byrne proud.  ‘Powa’ is the key track of the album, a mighty combination of soaring falsettos and pounding guitar.  Merill’s voice flows seamlessly from highs to lows to soulful howls that give the impression you are listening to some amazing long lost Zeppelin session.  As Merill pleas “I need you to press me down before my body flies away from me,” you can’t help but lift off the ground yourself.    

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