Album Review: Tune-Yards – “WHOKILL”
Ok, I’m pretty damn late to the Tune-Yards party (and, sorry, I refuse to use the tUnE-yArDs typography preferred by Merrill Garbus, the creative force behind the project.) As a somewhat insular roots music fan, I don’t spend a lot of time searching out indie rock, experimental bands, etc. In fact, my first very brief listen to Tune-Yards when their most recent album, WHOKILL, dropped this past April was a very cursory, quickly dismissive listen. Lucky for me, I happened to catch an interview and in-studio performance with Garbus on WBEZ’s Sound Opinions this past weekend. I was immediately charmed by Garbus and loved hearing her approach to music; her reverence for African music, passion about its influence on the music of Appalachia, and her down to earth modesty. I was also charmed by the very DIY approach Garbus takes with respect to her music and live performances; an approach that embraces chance and mistake. Despite the fact that Tune-Yards is a band casually dependent on technology, influenced by hip-hop, electronica, and other dance musics (among many others), at its heart this is folk music, albeit a 21st century version thereof.
Admittedly, most folk musics are highly infused by place, location, and cultural heritage whereby Tune-Yards is most notable for a wild diversity of cultural influences spanning multiple continents. Of course, most folk musics are examples of cultures clashing together to create new aesthetic forms, but the cross-pollination has traditionally been slow and contained. In the internet age, when one can explore centuries of music the world over with the click of a mouse, such slowly evolving organic hybrids are less likely. Instead, Tune-Yards reminds me of a raucous international marketplace listened to from a distance, where African horns, hip-hop boomboxes, strummed ukuleles, and sparse punk rock drum beats all converge simultaneously. The sound is exhilarating, slightly disorienting, and always pleasantly surprising. What I most appreciate is the fearlessness inherent in the music. One gets the idea that Garbus has a liberated internal editor, impervious to self-criticism when creating music. Instead of second-guessing her instincts, I like to imagine her bullying the hell out of her every idea, forcing it to conform to her larger vision come hell or hi-fidelity. Given Garbus’ grass-roots, lo-fi approach, I wonder if she might not find the two synonymous anyway.
You can watch the first video above to see Garbus illustrate how she constructs her songs using only a couple of drums, a ukulele, and her voice run through a looping sample pedal. The song, “Powa,” starts off with a softly delivered whispery vocal style before giving way to a much more powerful R&B delivery full of confident posturing and sliding vocal inflections reminiscent of African song. With only her samples, a ukulele riff and the syncopated bass lines of band member Nate Brenner, the song creates a full, rich sound infused with improvisation and soulful confidence. It’s like highly inspired performance art slyly dressed up in the clothes of experimental world indie pop.
Another stand-out track from the album, “Gangsta,” (video above) begins with sustained alto and baritone sax lines as Garbus lays down a looped drum track and layered African-inspired vocal chants. The song then playfully weaves between stacatto hip-hop infused vocal riffs and flute-like whispers. Somewhere along the way, the music stops to introduce some avant-garde jazz lines from the sax players before they offer a sort of mimicked response to the earlier call of vocal chants. The song closes with a chorus of squeaking, squawking horns seemingly indebted to the later work of John Coltrane and his collaborations with the master of sublime “squawk jazz”, Eric Dolphy. To be honest, it’s just kind of a fucking crazy song, wholly self-indulgent but clever enough to pull it all off.
The entire album is filled with this same sort of kitchen sink, almost dada approach to composition. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, for certain, and I suspect fans of traditional roots music might find little to hold onto when listening. I must say, however, for me the album has been a revelation, and I hear an amalgam of roots music the world over filtered through a wholly unique, postmodern sensibility.
Dustin Ogdin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nashville, TN. His work has been featured by MTV News, the Associated Press, and various other stops in the vast environs of the world wide web. His personal blog and home base is Ear•Tyme Music. Click below to read more and network with Dustin.