I remember being supremely confused and then pleasantly taken-aback when I heard BiRd-BrAiNs for the first time back in 2009. The music wasn’t something I typically would have listened to of my own accord, but it didn’t take me long to realize that tUnE-yArDs wasn’t really concerned with making folk tunes according to the set patterns with which I was accustomed. I remember having trouble figuring out if I was to extol Merrill Garbus for her gritty lo-fi DIY asceticism, or take her lovely, fanciful ideas and help her shape them into something a bit more formal.
It turns out that she didn’t need my assistance in the slightest, because w h o k i l l finds Garbus willingly stretching outside of her insular, ukulele-fueled brand of freak-folk. This boisterous, bouncing ten-song affair has her whimsical approach to music-making heartily embracing Afro-Caribbean art-pop, to brilliant results. The music calls to mind the sort of left-field indie-critic fare made by Dirty Projectors and TV On The Radio mixed with the wonky psychedelics perpetuated by The Flaming Lips and The Grateful Dead. And yes – that is a positive reference to the legacy of Jerry Garcia and his compatriots, in that this is some seriously squirrelly pop-rock.
The flow of the album pulses and oozes with life. Aesthetically, the project manages to extend beyond Garbus’ organic lo-fi beginnings, while still sounding earthy and rooted. While some might lament that the raw textures of the hand-held recordings that powered BiRd-BrAiNs have been replaced with clean, polished sounds, all I hear are energetic arrangements that are very dance-friendly.
To my ears, the strength of this record is the rapport between the layered syncopation that supports the loping rhythms. Garbus still squawks out her words instead of anything typically associated with “singing,” but her vocalizations are a good tonal match for the deep connections that exist between the tribal drums riffs, the horn bleats, the layered percussion (whether xylophone/vibes or various noisemakers), and the smooth white-funk of the guitars and bass licks.
Songs like “My Country,” “Gangsta,” “Bizness,” and “You Yes You” are just fun, poppy, and kinetic, even if I really don’t have a clue about how to decipher Garbus’ esoteric lyrics (though I think that “Gangsta” is about gentrification and wanting to keep developers out of her lower-income neighborhood). With w h o k i l l, I feel that tUnE-yArDs strides beyond the cesspools brimming with hipster chic and asserts her prodigious abilities with reconstituting and re-interpreting classic art-pop/rock archetypes. Simply put, this is a record made by a confident woman, and I think it’s great.