Merril Garbus is a woman who uses her vocals to the extreme. Pushing the boundaries of what’s normally accepted as a pop voice, there’s real conviction emanating from every breath and every note. It’s almost as if she’s constantly got life’s caps lock on. Nothing on this album is there by chance. It’s there for a reason. Between the strangeness of some of her vocals to rarely used instrumentation, there’s an extreme thought process behind this album.
The album drips with youthfulness and the bizarre. It’s definitely out-there in terms of sound, but rather than making it a musical pariah, the album will intrigue and capture even the most harsh cynics. The progression from her previous outing to this one is significant. Garbus seems more comfortable in her style, deciding that even with professional help in making it, she can still encompass the lo-fi sound that makes her who she is. The sophomore record is usually the most difficult to pull off, but for Garbus it seems that it’s where she’s really found her footing.
The album opens confidently with My Country, where Garbus talks about struggling with her privileged upbringing. Subject matter wise, it’s a little trite. Musically it’s defiant, borrowing polyrhythm from Afrian culture and fusing it with a very LA-pop sound. And that is essentially where this album fits. It’s experimental without being unfamiliar. Garbus isn’t exactly one to tread lightly on issues such as body-image, race, class and gender. But she does so in a fairly savvy way.
The stand-out tracks on this album by far are Es-so, Doorstep and the single Bizness. Gangsta, with its tribal drums and electronic feel reminds me a lot of Lykke Li’s Get Some from last year at times. But there’s also hints at a more experimental sound evocative of the likes of Soap & Skin. It’s bizarrely melodious with its backing vocals emulating ambulance sounds.
A confident and powerful second outing from the New England native. Yes the album reeks of Vampire Weekend. But it’s the far more unhinged kind. Which makes it far more interesting.
w h o k i l l is out now on 4AD.