When listening to tUnE-yArDs in the past, I've felt slightly disconnected from the lyrical themes and musical directions artist Merrill Garbus provides. After 2009's energetic, lo-fi debut.. Good things were expected for the sophomore release here in 2011. First instincts show an improvement in production and skill, with this album being recorded in a studio, compared to the debut being recorded on a hand held voice recorder then mixed using Audacity.
It doesn't take long before the compact, significant, layered textures take control of the music, with Garbus sounding fresh and ready to take on the world. The track 'My Country' starts with a basic beat which increases with vocal samples and further beats, only for the track to explode with synths and great sounding bass. The vocals are extremely heavy and take use of studio effects, with vocal harmonies being played on the left and right speaker respectfully, adding to the experimental side of her music. Following this, 'Es-So' uses a lightly distorted guitar, vastly layered and cut up, which creates a Ska like atmosphere with the slow, symbolic beat. You can hear great attention to detail and the use of several instruments, including the use of upright bass.
The vocals are outstanding on 'Gangsta', with serious anger in her voice, accompanied by the infuriated guitar work and horn sections. The song is about danger and crime, a topic which Garbus has chosen as her main lyrical theme for W H O K I L L. The emotive 'Powa' uses a slow paced beat with great guitar work, sounding fresh on the left side of the speaker. The vocals are sung clearly and have great effect with the lyrics. Garbus has a great voice which is easily recognised, it's manly in texture and is worthy of all the attention she receives for using it to great acclaim. Police brutality is next on the list with 'Riotriot', the track sounds much refined and down to earth with the key section working with upright bass. It's slow paced and has a beautiful vocal segment towards the end of the track. Where the early songs dabbled in fast paced beats and vigorous sounding guitar work, these last few and following track are far longer in length and slower in tempo, adding to an emotive mood.
Distorted beats are not forgotten when 'Doorstep' is heard. The drum heavy beat is steady and allows room for the bass to lead the track in a direction unexpected for the listener. But it doesn't.. The track just follows the same pattern with little variation in instruments other than synth entering at one point and further percussion work. The obvious focus is on vocal work and Garbus does deliver a great vocal, heavily layered. Effects have been added clearly, adding to the experimental atmopshere the whole album represents. I cant help but feel a little short changed when listening to tracks like 'Bizness' and 'Yes Yes You', the later sounding like it belongs on radio airplay at 3.30 in the afternoon. It doesn't help that the vocal style Garbus has sounds like Paolo Nutini on crack cocaine. 'Biziness' sounds fresh and has some great brass work, but overall it sounds very similar to some of the other songs on the album. It's starting to fall apart, the lack of originality and musical change is disturbing because the album was sounding wonderful.
My first listen to 'Wolly Wolly Gong' was disturbing, it sounds hauntingly beautiful but at the same time incredibly sparse and quiet. The beat is nice and quiet which allows the ukulele to take control and show great sympathy for the vocal work. The structure of the chorus, singing and also the percussion reminds me of Bjork's Selmasongs, especially 'I've Seen It All'. The final track 'Killa' is direct and heavily relies on it's faster, textured guitar work. I hear bass work which sounds designed for a late 60's Soul single.
For the listener, this album will leave a mark. It generally has received a positive reception from fans and that's rightfully so. The improved compact sound add to her kooky, eccentric attitude and vocal harmonies. The beats are mostly fresh and work well with the mass instrument used from all over the world. This album was bound to be an improvement because of the dosh given to Garbus for recording a better, fuller album..For this we can thank 4AD.