One of the most talked about albums of 2009, if not one of the highest selling, was tUnE-yArDs’ debut effort BiRd-BrAiNs – and not just for all those rogue capital letters. Recorded entirely on digital tape and pieced together on a laptop, it seemed to redefine the concept of lo-fi recording.
It was during live shows though that the buzz really built around Merrill Garbus (who is, in effect, tUnE-yArDs). Synchronised drums, loop pedals, an overwhelming sense of joy and the magical, theatrical presence of Garbus herself led people to whisper words like ‘religious experience’ and ‘genius’.
Two years on, and Garbus appears to have distilled that live ambience into the recording studio. For, as good as BiRd-BrAiNs was (and it was, for the most part, outstanding), w h o k i l l represents a massive leap forward creatively. There’s an energy and atmosphere to w h o k i l l which seems to just pour off the record. In a world of identikit pop stars, it’s safe to say that you’ll not hear an album like this anywhere else this year.
Opening track My Country sets the exhilarating tone early – a thumping, jumping beast of a song which is impossible to sit still to. The rhythm is irresistible, horns blast, and there’s even the odd glockenspiel in there, while dominating everything is Garbus’ tremendous voice, which manages to inject genuine soul into every note.
Staggeringly, the rest of the album is of similar quality. It’s difficult to pick out a stand-out track, but Riotriot is certainly up there. A sole finger-picked ukulele sets the tone before building up beautifully as cacophonous drums and a saxophone join the party, until a delicious tribal rhythm strikes up. Doorstep is less frantic if no less effective, an addictive vocal line of “the policeman shot my baby as he crossed onto my doorstep” hinting at a dark undertone beneath the joyous melody.
Es-So puts the loop pedals to good use, looping Garbus backing vocals and repeating a ridiculously addictive guitar riff. Like much of the rest of the album, it’s experimental yet utterly accessible, catchy without being annoying and strangely odd without being alienating.
For Garbus has that mysterious ingredient to her that keeps you going back to her music – that ‘X-Factor’ before Simon Cowell bastardised the phrase. It’s there in the astonishing, horn-laden swagger of Bizness, in the wonderfully danceable Gangsta, and especially in the delirious rhythms of You Yes You. Even the less immediate tracks, such as Wooly Wooly Gong, have a unique charm revealed after a few plays.
It’s an album that it’s impossible to ever imagine tiring of – and as soon as the closing beats of the superb Killa come to a halt, you just want to start it all over again. In a year that’s already been rather special for great albums, Merrill Garbus may well have produced the finest record of the year.