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Album of the Week – tUnE-yArDs’ “W H O K I L L”

Hello there, Lab Rats. If you’re anything like me, there’s nothing quite like a great bit of art to light that fire under your social activist ass. In my case, nothing burns hotter than a great album, so I’ve decided to share a favorite of mine every week with you lucky so and sos. For our first venture into the wonderful world of carefully collected sounds, I thought we’d start out with something equal parts weird and wonderful: tUnE-yArDs’ W H O K I L L.

tUnE-yArDs (I promise my keyboard didn’t temporarily go on the fritz) is a band led by Merrill Garbus with support from bass player/sometimes songwriter Nate Brenner. To put it in the simplest of terms, they make music that doesn’t easily fit into any specific genre box. They pull from a wide array of sounds including African, soul, and pop. While wearing influences on her sleeves, Merrill gladly bursts out of those easy to pin down sounds to bring in your face songs that scream, “Fuck your labels!” And man, this lady can scream. Her sometimes androgynous voice is a finely tuned instrument meant to sooth with layered coos or jolt with yelps that reach through your speakers, grab your ears, and demand attention. As creatively as all the drums, bass, ukulele, and horns are used, her voice is the most striking instrument you’ll hear in these 10 songs. This certainly isn’t background music. She has something to say and does her damnedest to insure that you listen.

As bizarre as the sounds she incorporates into her music, her message holds just as much power over the listener. She covers a plethora of topics including ant-nationalism, sex, body image issues, and the strange lust she feels for a policeman who’s come to arrest her brother. She paints word pictures in a feverish manner that lends a picture of her slinging an electric palette of colors on canvas that best serves a particular message. As many have said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” so let’s just get to some tunes.

I suppose the best place to start with this album is at the beginning, with the first track “My Country.” The song finds Merrill wondering where she fits in a country whose morals don’t align with hers (a place I’m sure all of us have found ourselves). Adding to the triumphant sounds the track offers, Mimi Cave brings a wonderful complementary video. It features a gang of children serving as face-painted backing singers, band, and dancers. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun.

“You Yes You” is one of the best love songs I’ve heard. While focusing on the devotion typical in a romance tune, it calls into question whether one’s art may suffer as a result of the bliss associated with love. Garbus wonders whether stability will alter her artistic output with the repeated lines “Now that everything is gonna be okay / Now that everything’s gonna be alright / What if, baby, I cannot see the sound? / What if, baby, I cannot hear the light?” The following video is a live version of the song that gives you a feel for how she goes about replicating the album’s sound in a live setting. As a bonus, we see her talk about the title of the album and it’s evolution and significance.

Finally, a song I interpret to be about emotional baggage in a relationship, “Bizness.” The song seems to be from the point of a lover who is on the wrong end of insecurities from their partner, pleading to be seen as the complete human being they are. Brought to life by another great video from Mimi cave, featuring more face-painted kids as well as a choreographed and fun dance routine/silly face making, the song shines.

If you enjoyed any of the stuff you’ve heard here from tUnE-yArDs, please check out the full album (as well as their other two). I hope you’ll return next week for another look at a record that challenges the status quo and might just inspire you to do the same.

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