tUnE-yArDs Raises Her Voice

Merrill Garbus bravely engages with the world's ladies and gentlemen on w h o k i l l

So much of the album—both in sound and in rhetoric—is what I guess you'd call "politically correct," a term I forgot around 2000. Garbus plays the eclectic white liberal who burns to know what a girl's to do if she'll never be a Rasta (her words, not mine). It's probably a pertinent question, but in 2011 it seems borderline corny, especially when your songs are spelled "Bizness," "Powa," and "Killa." The occasional upright bass and scat singing don't help. But Garbus tempers those impulses and deflates those perspectives so carefully—"I'm so hip!"—that she now joins a band like Vampire Weekend in seeming cool for confidently embracing styles and gestures that seem contextually uncool. (That's how I read it at least, even though it makes my head hurt—the short way of putting it is that she seems artistically self-aware, which is always a good look.)

Merrill Garbus, a/k/a tUnE-yArDs, thinks about and sweats with people.
Anna M. Campbell
Merrill Garbus, a/k/a tUnE-yArDs, thinks about and sweats with people.

w h o k i l l is a gunshot, or a brick through a window. It doesn't make room for its listener, but then again, that's an offer tight-fisted and hard-headed artists often make: Take it or leave it. It won't be admired for its subtlety, because it doesn't have any. But it's also pretty convincing in positing a world whose most interesting issues don't play out through subtlety, but through friction and collision. Its situations are morally troubling but completely irreducible. How old-fashioned, you might think. But Garbus's engagement is loud and hard to ignore. That she engages without despair is the part I find most admirable of all.

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