BiRd-BrAiNs, the idiosyncratic, home-recorded debut by tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, stood way the hell out from the lo-fi pack in 2009 when it was released, exuding restless ambition and an individual sensibility even while much of indie rock settled for the lowest common denominator. Money earned licensing her music to Blackberry provided Garbus the resources to record w h o k i l l in the studio with Nate Brenner (her touring bassist and collaborator) and a band, offering cleaner sonics and a slightly fuller live band sound. Rock critics typically reward the migration of a lo-fi artist to the studio, hearing in it increasing confidence and maturity. In some ways, I prefer the weird, laptop-produced smallness of the first album that clips against the confines of its production, but here Garbus has retained the disorienting feeling of the first album and made it bigger, deeper, more enveloping, even as the scope of her lyrics and vocal ambitions has taken a giant step out of the bedroom and onto the street.
This album demands your open-minded attention on its own terms, and it ends up teaching you how to listen to it in a new way. “Bizness” is a masterpiece, with much of its appeal coming from the clarity and light of its sound. (The Blackberry money apparently didn’t go to waste.) In the song, Garbus loops her voice into luminous bird coos and chatters, while her shimmering ukulele metamorphosizes into something that owes as much to Vini Reilly (The Durutti Column) as to the West African music that enlivens Garbus’ fascinating songs. To be sure, this isn’t your average Vampire Weekend. Garbus, who has studied Swahili and traveled to Kenya as part of a college exchange program, translates her experiences into a musical vocabulary, compositional approach, and production aesthetic that is utterly unique.
More influential than the Blackberry money to this album’s success is Garbus’ move to Oakland. This album seeps an anxiety and disruption that’s appropriate to her new setting. I lived in Oakland many years ago, and I still spend a lot of time there. At least according to a humble music critic and not an expert or even a current resident, it seems Oakland is a city that is still deep in the throes of a gentrification effort that often seems fairly uninterested in Oakland’s own history and cultural forms, preferring instead to buy it up and replace it with an NPR-approved bohemia. It appears, then, that this album is the way that a sensitive, thoughtful transplant should react to such a stark display of privilege amidst the violence and dispossession seen in Oakland.
In “Riotriot,” one of Garbus’ characters asks “Why did you come here to our neighborhood?” In response, Garbus has crafted an album of many voices, all voiced by herself. In the home-recorded “Killa,” Garbus laments not having more “male black friends” in Oakland. Alongside this, however, is the thrill-seeking gentrifier’s admittance that “There is a freedom in violence I don’t understand” and the sarcastic bravado betrayed in “Gangsta’s” boast “Bang bang! Ain’t never move to my hood, because danger is crawling out the wood.” The violence of the city is very real and something of a challenge to a concerned neighbor. “Wooly Wolly Gong” asks “How do you keep your bleeding heart wide open?” Indeed, this is an album unsettled by and dramatizing its own contractions and conflicts, including both asymmetrical cultural appropriations of African music and the alignment of class difference along racial lines in rapidly gentrifying Oakland.
On top of this, Garbus also wrestles with gender. Its original title was “Women Who Kill.” The dropping of “Women” from the title while continuing its presence in the album’s theme is characteristic of the evasive position that Garbus takes toward her own surroundings, privilege, and gender. According to feminist and poststructural theory, this is also the attitude of much female writing within a masculine discourse. It is an attempt to escape the logical binaries — white/black, male/female — that structure our world. For example, while writing or singing from a position of masculinity is to be self-identical, to be comfortable with an authority that comes for granted, the female is the non-male, the Other, the not-“I,” an identity that is unnatural. To escape this binary, feminine writing often turns to forms that are multiple, unidentifiable, and always changing. The production on w h o k i l l multiplies and splinters Garbus’ already supple and ambiguous singing voice, blurring the lines between self and other, one and many. Playing the album for my girlfriend and her roommate, each kept hearing the voice of the other singing along, in harmony. In these songs, Garbus’ looped voice floats and darts from every corner of the stereo field, where unequal and untrue oppositions are not so much reversed as avoided.
Garbus’ ironic refrain in “Killa” to “Watch me now” is oddly prophetic. NPR can’t get enough of her, in the same way we can’t take our eyes off of the hip young urbanities making high culture and going to parties amidst some of the country’s most disadvantaged populations in our urban centers. Although the shootings are a spectacle for the urban hipster (“Gangsta”), there is another population there that is always a potential target, through no fault of their own (“Doorstep”). “Riotriot” asks, “Who are you for?” Garbus wants to know if you are for anything other than being cool. “I’m so hip,” she sings in “Killa,” “I can’t take it.” Garbus’ multiplication of voices and authentic encounter with other sounds and personas is evidence of a desire to take the attention off of herself and turn it to her surroundings, to engage in an always-risky encounter with difference. We need a What’s Going On for the current generation of post-collegiate hipsters living in our hip neighborhoods. On this album, Garbus attempts to do this in a sophisticated and admirable way, and in the very form of her music, she offers a potential solution of a sort.