The Groove Seeker: Tune-Yards’ Whokill

The Groove Seeker goes in search of killer grooves across rock, funk, hip hop, soul, electronic music, jazz, fusion, and more.

Tune-Yards: Whokill (4AD, 4/19/11)

Tune-Yards: “Bizness”

[audio:|titles=tUnE-yArDs: “Bizness”]

If you’ve ever seen Merill GarbusTune-Yards play live, you understand how resourceful and creative a musician she is. With a ragtag set of drums and ukulele close at hand, Garbus builds her songs from scratch by live-looping repetitive drum and vocal patterns. Crafty to say the least, her performances are a multitasking puzzle of pedal stepping and vocal-scat arranging, revealing compositions and melodies that are spontaneous but clearly logical.

As Tune-Yards, Garbus surprised many with a gem of a debut in 2009. That record, Bird-Brains, thrives on the same weirdness and DIY attitude that make Garbus’ live shows so enjoyable. Not only were the songs recorded using a freeware program, but the folk-inspired experiments are packed with field recordings, Dictaphone samples, and intermittent elements of R&B and hip hop, all loosely fastened down by Garbus’ versatile Afro-pop-influenced vocals.

Whokill, Garbus’ second album under the case-sensitive moniker (generally stylized as tUnE-yArDs), sees her trading in the Dictaphone for some full-blown studio time. Tracked and mixed by Eli Crews (producer for Deerhoof and Why?), with co-writing credits going to bassist Nate Brenner (Beep), the record shows definite growth from those lo-fi-recording days. Thankfully, a bit of studio polish doesn’t take away her charm and musical wit.  If anything, the new approach gives her avant-garde pop the right venue in which to be properly heard.

Musically, Whokill is filled with as much attention to detail as the first record, but executed in a more sophisticated manner.  A healthy blend of live and electronic beats keeps listeners’ heads nodding, and intricate overdubbing and multi-tracking lend the minute details that make the record successful.  Garbus’ experimental electronica is also kept intact, given even greater depth through its pairing with a horn section.

Garbus’ vivid vocals and distinctive, lyrical penmanship are easily the album’s driving forces.  Album opener “My Country” features looped vocal samples over the song’s straightforward beat, giving the singer free reign to ferociously belt it out.  Pounding synth lines and funky horn fills seal the deal, revealing a song that’s meticulously arranged and thoughtfully mulled over.

Whereas Bird-Brains left listeners trying to make sense of strange cut-and-paste methods, Whokill makes it all the more coherent.  Ideas are myriad, fleshed out by a wider set of influences.  “Es-So,” like many of the tracks, bumps stereophonically, as the semi-disparate guitar grooves and scratchy electronics move from left- to right-speaker channels.  Garbus’ voice is again at the forefront, this time showing her falsetto range and jazz chops.

Some of the record’s best tracks contain its most distinct musical moments. “Powa” is soulful and authoritative, with Brenner’s commanding bass leading the way.  “Doorstep,” a sweet, modern serenade of the street-corner doo-wop sound, takes the same guise with a bit more sonic experimentation.  The infectiously catchy lead single, “Bizness,” oozes African influences, from Garbus’ drawn-out yells to Brenner’s bass groove. It gets even better when the collective locks into the hook, an African-tinged call-and-response chorus that Garbus does with herself.

Just when you thought that the avenues of the avant-garde music scene were becoming trite, Tune-Yards releases something highly inventive and fresh.  Blissful in sound and colorful in tone, Whokill shows an artist maturing while staying true to her own style. Tune-Yards is making grooves for those searching for something different.

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