W H O K I L L
* * * * 1/2
BEST IN THE WEST
The San Francisco music scene has produced some great artists in the last few years. Just look at the rise of the San Francisco garage-rock scene (Ty Segall, the Fresh & Onlys, Sonny & the Sunsets, Thee Oh Sees, Sic Alps, etc.), the equally fertile “Contingent” (The Matches, Ghost & the City, Picture Atlantic, Please Do Not Fight, Rin Tin Tiger, Girl Named T, Finish Ticket, Dizzy Balloon, Man In Space, Fever Charm, Madders, Handshake, Audrye Sessions, etc.,) and the unbelievably amazing spate of semi-connected teen bands that emerged about a year and a half ago (the SHE’s, the Psychotherapists, Adolescent Friction, the Piers, the Audiophiles, Lou Lou & the Guitarfish, Madders, the Cypher Syndicate, etc.), not to mention unconnected bands like Girls and the Morning Benders who grew too big for the scene. But there’s one problem--few of these bands have released albums as great as they have the potential to make. Most of the garage bands record largely scrappy mini-albums of excellent but half-formed ideas and dish them out like sliders; the Contingent bands are unapologetically about having fun and putting on a damn good show; and most of the teen bands never recorded more than a handful of amazing but rough songs that never found their way onto a proper release. And don’t even get me started on Green Day. So to make the best album produced by any Bay Area artist in the last two years is saying a lot without saying much. Let’s just get it off the shelf: W H O K I L L, the second album by Oakland-based musician Merrill Garbus under the tUnE-yArDs moniker, is the best album made by any Bay Area artist in the last two years.
And what an album it is--it’s also one of the best albums of 2011 so far by any artist from anywhere in the Anglophone world. W H O K I L L is a perfect fusion of virtually every form of music ever conceived by anyone living west of Cairo and north of the equator. The obvious influence here is African music--the insane polyrhythms, the dozens of drums, and the celebratory mood all suggest the wildest Afropop and Afrobeat as well as more traditional folk and drum music. There are also ukuleles, used in a way that evokes reggae but not Jason Mraz; a massive free-jazz horn section; complex, almost classical structure, and hip-hop... um... dare I say “swagga?” But towering above all else is Garbus’ multi-octave voice, which can sound like Joni Mitchell, Odetta, Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Somerville, or a wild animal in the span of thirty seconds. Few singers, male or female, are capable of letting their voices run as free as Garbus does while still maintaining control. Her vocals on “Bizness” are particularly impressive--her voice goes in syncopated patterns that at times seem to lead us into a different groove but always resolve, if sometimes in unexpected ways.
It’s tempting to compare W H O K I L L to the dangerous Oakland terrain on which it was conceived, mainly due to its fun sense of danger and its dangerous sense of fun. But there’s no death, doom or destruction here, not even in songs like “Killa”--the most dangerous thing here is the music itself. W H O K I L L is proof that music doesn’t need to have loud guitars or heavy distortion to be be aggressive and confrontational (hell, it doesn’t even need to be particularly dark) and there’s enough raw and concentrated sound here to knock even the most experienced listeners off their feet. Nothing’s scary here (not even Merrill), but the music is certainly powerful enough to carry a sense of menace along with it, as if the soundwaves could come to life Scott Pilgrim-style and beat the living crap out of you.
The overwhelming power of Garbus’ music may make W H O K I L L a difficult listen, and while it can be more than enjoyable to the experienced ear, the average listener might, at best, be filled merely with awe. It’s not a fun utopian masterpiece like the Audiophiles’ Fairytales and Other Tales, and unless you’re a ghetto kid or a wild animal in the Headlands, it’s hardly a fitting soundtrack for the best time of your life. But W H O K I L L is a musical treasure, an oddity, a stylistic masterpiece, the most purely interesting, fascinating, and engaging record to emerge from the Bay Area in the last couple years. And no matter who you are, what kind of music you like or don’t like, whether you like this music or not, whether you’re the most sheltered Belieber or the most jaded scholar of the avant-garde--prepare to be flattened.