Merril Garbus would make a great mum. One of those really embarrassing ones that all your friends think is cool, while you just can’t see past the bad fashion sense and goofy sense of humour. Yet, for all her idiosyncrasies and quirky attitude, Tune-Yards (or tUnE-YaRdS, as she likes to put it) is a one-woman show unconcerned with the smirking glances and backchat her lively avant-pop could elicit. That’s because, as much as you can become frustrated by the indiscriminate use of the caps lock key and typeface mash-ups of her second album track listing, who kill (sorry, w h o k i l l), there lies a talent and attitude that reaches beyond the accusations of pretension and into pop music for the future.
Starting off with her 2009 self-titled debut, the New England native littered our minds with the hyperactive sampling and looping of kids’ voices and spasmodic acoustic guitar progressions –all recorded on Dictaphone. Along with the audio degradation of the notoriously crappy quality of cassette tape, the album reached the eager ears of admiring critics before she was picked up by a label and given a real recording studio to work with for the follow-up.
In drawing from the pre-digital age –more from necessity as a struggling artist, than affectation – w h o k i l l combines a sense of the information saturation of the world wide web with her lo-fi leanings to make pop music for a decade from now. Where the idea of a radio-friendly pop song is one that should arrest its listeners instantly, then as audience attention spans get shorter, smart musicians accommodate. That’s why Garbus and others like her, who grew up with an awareness of twitching musical forebears Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, offer our goldfish memories continuous hooks, dynamic tempo changes and frenzied bursts in energy. Funnily enough, Beefheart himself says he wrote music for children and, believe him or not, it’s this element of naïve playfulness that Tune-Yards carries on in songs like ‘Es-so’, her most Beefheart-like track, and bedtime story Wooly-Wolly Gong –the name speaks for itself.
Meanwhile, Garbus reveals her singing chops by stretching them through the soulful reggae and afro-inspired ‘Powa’, as well as her disregard for classification with a decent effort at rapping in ‘Killa’. Littered with word play, real life sampling of ambulances, poetry and noises that are just plain weird, as well as one instance of dropping the ‘F-bomb’, Tune-Yards is someone who likes to have fun and make sure everyone else is too. Merrill is a mum who totally gets it.
whokill was released yesterday under 4AD