The gloriously weird and heartfelt world of Merrill Garbus — aka tUnE-YarDs — is one that is easy to inhabit, provided you’re into things that are weird and heartfelt. Garbus has been making music since 2006, using loop pedals to create a full band around her ukulele and bass playing and programmed drums, as well as her powerful vocals.
“w h o k i l l,” her second album, is a more accessible collection of songs than her first album, “BiRd-BrAiNs,” but no less unique and intelligent. It combines elements of hip hop, jazz and indie rock into a statement that’s hard to resist — equal parts M.I.A., Ani DiFranco and MGMT. Garbus’ strongest weapon is her voice, an expressive alto that she stretches into a soulful soprano, and samples to give herself a backing choir. The timbre of her voice is reminiscent of Nina Simone, though her brash delivery hearkens to hip hop — and when she hits high notes it feels a bit like Jeff Buckley.
Her lyrics deal with issues of gender, society and relationships, but with a humor and passion that keeps it engaging. At times, “w h o k i l l” is danceable, as on the lead single “Bizness” or “Gangsta;” other times, it’s soaring and sincere, as on the gorgeous “Powa.” Her music seems to exist outside of any trend currently going on in music, and yet, it draws on familar, beloved influences, as diverse as mid-90s Beastie Boys and the cool jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Garbus is a true individual, and it’s safe to say you probably won’t hear anything like “w h o k i l l” this year — or most any other year, for that matter.