tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L (2.5/5)
Despite his archetypal place as a hero, no one wants to be the boy who obnoxiously points out that the emperor has no clothes. Maybe the town folks were deluding themselves by celebrating the non-existent attire, but they were also taking a little time out of their day with their family to enjoy a royal procession. And that little brat had to ruin it for everyone. So, it is with little pleasure that I have to question the universal praise of the Tune-Yards’s latest album, WHOKILL. At its best, the album strives to strike out in its own direction, but at its worse, the album seems strangely emptied of new ideas, a cardinal sin for a band that, judging by their assault on rules of capitalization, pride themselves on their ingenuity.
WHOKILL is built around two important elements: the band’s interest in afro-beat rhythms and the schizophrenic vocal stylings of lead singer Merrill Garbus. Rock musicians have been entranced by African rhythms at least since the likes of Adam and the Ants dropped their first album, so it isn’t particularly revelatory several decades down the road. Of course, all musicians build upon their forebears, so Tune-Yards do not deserve demerits merely because they aren’t the first to be influenced by African music. The band’s real problems stem from their execution. The songs themselves are built tentatively on a thin frame, treating their deliberately tinny sounding drums lead each song. This at time seem to conflict with the vocals. Garbus’s voice can hover quietly or burst into a shriek at a moment’s notice. And yet this range never becomes a true asset. Whenever she chooses to let out a full throated yalp she throws the entire affair out of order, overpowering the treacly instrumentation. There are plenty of missteps throughout WHOKILL, but none get under your fingernails as easily as the moment on “You Yes You” where Garbus screams “What’s that about!” like a cartoon character over a thin beat.
But perhaps the most unsettling aspect of WHOKILL is the sense that Garbus is performing, metaphorically, in blackface. I certainly have no inherent problem with the kind of cross cultural pollination that Tune-Yards are trading in. Without different cultures borrowing from one another, then none of my favorite musical forms would even exist. However, when a white girl begins singing in a faux patois and appears to be speaking from the perspective of an urban minority, then we should probably question whether or not she is doing more than just pantomiming for affect. Perhaps the worst offender of the entire album is the song “Gangster,” which uses the following as its chorus: “Bang bang bang oh / Ain't never move to my hood / Cause danger is crawling out the wood.” Again, I actually have no problem with whites taking on the voice of black protagonists when it serves a particular artistic or narrative end, but because Garbus’s lyrics lack any depth—she seems content to merely repeat the same snippets throughout the song—the moments where she takes on a black voice come across as nothing more than affected flourishes. The African (American) experience becomes little more than an aesthetic choice.
The Tune-Yards are currently enjoying a seemingly endless amount of praise. And even if that praise is undeserved, I certainly cannot begrudge them their success. After all, there are plenty of more financially successful musicians who make far worse music. At least Tune-Yards are trying, even though they are not also succeeding.