tUnE-yArDs is the typographically-challenged name for Merrill Garbus, a songwriter who’s quickly making a name for herself in indie-rock. 2009 saw the quiet release of her debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, which soon became an online hit with its mixture vocal loops and unique poly-rhythms. This week marks the release of a follow-up, whokill, which might already be in contention for album of the year.
whokill carries over some of Garbus’s oddball ideas from her first record. Vocal loops fade in and out of the mix, acting as both melodic hooks and rhythmic beds for her expressive singing. But the album is also miles away from tUnE-yArDs’ lo-fi past.
Garbus recorded the album in an actual studio with a live rhythm section, and the clearer sounds give her more room to maneuver as both a singer and songwriter. Bassist Nate Brenner is the MVP of the record – his fluid bass lines keep the songs anchored, allowing Garbus to draw from folk, jazz, and Afro-pop for the challenging melodies. It’s an exhilarating and, at times, difficult listen. But it’s hard not to like the sheer fun Garbus has writing and performing music.
Lead single, “Bizness,” is heavily influenced by both African rhythms and vocal stylings. Garbus spent significant time in Africa – noting that she “took this yodeling style from Central Africa,” and the “chordal harmonic sense” from Tanzania. Garbus admits that tUnE-yArDs is sort of what happens when indie-rock meets African musical traditions.