Josh Rutner

saxophonist, editor, indexer, etc.

Episode 15: W H O K I L L (tUnE-yArDs, 2011)

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W H O K I L L, the second album from Merrill Garbus as tUnE-yArDs, begins with a brief recording of her grandmother introducing her as a performer when she was a toddler—a moment, for a child, in which all attention is on them, and the ways of the world, revolving though they may be around her tiny head, are as other as other can be. But the sample is swiftly cut off by a propulsive beat—and we're off. Sleep tight, kiddo; the adults are going to talk now.

Those drums aren't coming from a traditional drum set but from Garbus' makeshift high/low, two-drum set-up. Bass and snare—a boom of the heel of the hand against the snap of a pencil on a lunchroom table. Find a video of Garbus performing as tUnE-yArDs and you'll more than likely see her standing behind two microphones—one to catch sounds for looping—flanked on her right and left by floor tom and snare, playing the two drums with arms wide open, as opposed to the cross-armed compactness of a sitting set-player. There's something about that image—high and low, playing against each other, rarely hitting at the same time and kept at arm’s length, but connected by a central puppet master and, aggregated, producing a complete and stirring image—that seems, to me at least, apt for tUnE-yArDs. A muted metaphor.

The beat in this lead-off track—a wry indictment of America entitled "My Country"—is soon joined by two of Garbus’ voices sung in hocket—a further illustration of voices worlds apart drawn together. Hocket is the musical practice of orchestrating a single melody between two or more voices. In this case, "Garbus One" sings only up-beats, and "Garbus Two" only down. The effect is magical and seductive from the outside, but, speaking as someone who's attempted this type of singing in the past, it's quite difficult to appreciate the aggregate beauty when you're in it. Sometimes the only way to stay on track is to ignore the other voices altogether.

"My Country" tears at the seams of the "American Dream" with lines like, "Your love it drags me down into the underground / My country bleeding me / I will not stay in your arms." It brings to mind for me David Byrne’s 1997 stab at dressing-down America through anthropomorphizing her—his song "Miss America," in which the narrating character, infatuated with this country-cum-supermodel in the manner of a teenage fan, professes his love but notes that she has wicked ways and secrets to be kept, like, for instance, how tall she is without her platform shoes. In Garbus' "My Country," she too latches onto this idea that America has dark secrets she is repressing, but she takes it a step further, screaming, "With my eyes open how can I be happy?" and whispering, "The worst thing about living a lie is just wondering when they'll find out."

Throughout W H O K I L L, Garbus addresses serious social issues but always with a nod of acknowledgment to the complexities of being a white Connecticutian who moved to Oakland via Montreal, and who incorporates a good deal of African musical elements into her music, singing about gentrification and cultural appropriation.

"I'm more comfortable with questions than with answers,” she says. “Which is why, [in the song Gangsta,] it's ‘What's a boy to do?’ rather than ‘Look at this dude who thinks he's a gangster.’ It's not even a judgment. Who am I to assess the situation and know what it's like to walk in those shoes?"

One of the most overtly political songs is "Doorstep": She sings, sing-songy—almost disturbingly happy-go-luckily, given the subject matter—"Don't tell me the cops are right in a wrong like this / ‘Cause policemen shot my baby as he crossed over my doorstep." The song was directly inspired by the case of Oscar Grant, a young, unarmed African-American man shot and killed by a police officer on an Oakland BART platform on New Year’s Day, 2009.

"I saw what was happening in the community and tried to grasp it from some kind of personal perspective,” Garbus recalls. “I found the distance between the human experience of that event and the way it was processed by the system horrifying."

There is a similar disconnect in the way she sets such a set of lyrics to a bouncy, doo-woppy groove in a major key. But the truth, as ever, will out: the pleasant melody is mottled with intentionally out-of-key notes. Toward the end of the song, the tick-ticking of her sticks on rims signals the marking of time as she sings: "How many gone before you listen to the cries?" Not "how long," but "how many gone." Time marked with bodies. Those ticks bleed into the off-camera sounds of a ticking clock proper at the start of "You Yes You," which changes tack—if sarcastically—by reframing the question to begin with the optimistic, “Now that everything’s gonna be OK, now that everything is gonna be all right...”

After laying all this serious "bizness" on the listener, there is, in the penultimate song, "Wolly Wolly Gong," a feint toward pleasantly lulling us to sleep, reassuring us, like a parent does to a child, that the coming morning will fix and undo wrongs, that all will be well. "For your sleep is guard 'gainst the cold and hard, a soft shroud of safety in a world gone wrong," she sings. Like many lullabies, however, listen close and you’ll notice the violent underbelly. “Rockabye baby in the treetop”—for the moment, anyway. Boughs break and babies fall. The final words of “Wolly Wolly Gong” pose the question, "When you fall what happens when you're landing?"

There’s an often-quoted retort by Prince Richard in Anthony Harvey’s 1968 film version of The Lion in Winter in response to Prince Geoffrey’s claim that it doesn’t matter the way one falls down. Richard, who is determined to provide no satisfaction to the approaching King, and certainly will not beg, says, “When the fall is all there is, it matters.”

It seems inevitable that we fall and and it’s nigh-impossible to imagine a return to any sort of prelapsarian bliss—if there even exists such a “time before the fall”—so the best we can do, perhaps, is pay attention, and do what we can while we’re landing.

It matters, after all. 

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.