Bird-Brains, the rambunctious 2009 debut album of Tune- Yards’ Merrill Garbus, is a notable example of the creative heights that can be achieved in the absence of formality and restraint: Guitars flailed gracelessly over poorly recorded drums, and every aspect of the recording was bathed in a tinny layer of digital dis- tortion, while the shoddy atmospherics provided the perfect sonic foundation for Garbus’ ramshackle songs; all this creates a compel- ling, unlikely tension between order and disorder that’s become the basis of her sound.
Though the recording quality is miles better than anything off Bird-Brains, WhoKill preserves the beauty-through-ugliness aesthetic of the earlier album. This approach is perhaps best summarized in the manic spoken-word interjection (a common fea- ture of WhoKill) on standout “Riotriot”: “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand,” cries Garbus. “And like I’ve never felt before.”
Indeed, WhoKill is characterized more than anything by its aggression. Lead single “Bizness” is an excellent embodiment of this approach: a prominent bass riff is accompanied by vaguely tribal drumming, Garbus’ ever-ecstatic yelping and, eventually, a fantastic saxophone barrage that wouldn’t sound out of place in sax legend John Coltrane’s Ascension. While Coltrane’s heady brand of free jazz is a far cry from Garbus’ earnest blasts of sound, the two share a willingness to abandon established formula.
Garbus does tend to stick to the same basic elements: distorted, ’90s radio-rock guitar, unabashedly loose bass work, layered drum loops and a helluva lot of scream- singing. But whether she’s cooing seductively to a (real or imagined) lover on “Powa” or confessing weak- ness on “Es-So,” Garbus demonstrates a mode of expression that’s fresher, more vital and — most importantly — more fun than almost anything else happening in indie rock today.