Merill Garbus' home-made patchwork of recordings and loops was so crucial to the success of her first tUnE-yArDs album, Bird Brains, that it seemed like lo-fi sounds were integral to her style. However, she recorded the songs that became W H O K I L L in a professional studio with an engineer and a crew of musicians, and the results are not only as vital and distinctive as what came before, they find Garbus coming into her own. Instead of confining herself to conventionally nice-sounding arrangements and techniques, Garbus sounds like a kid in a candy store, exhilarated by all the possibilities afforded to her. As on Bird Brains, she makes noise-pop of a completely different flavor. She tosses jazz, folk, R&B, hip-hop and whatever else strikes her fancy into fascinating collisions that are as melodic as they are abrasive, and as globally minded as they are distinctly urban. “Gangsta” is a dense crush of brass and beats topped with sirens and samples that make it sound like it’s unfolding on the street, while “Bizness”'s rippling layers evoke a futuristic hybrid of gamelan and Afro-pop. It’s Garbus' voice, however, that defines W H O K I L L. One moment, her singing is so unbridled it sounds like field recordings. The next, she hits a remarkable high note or turns a phrase with a torchy lilt like she does on “Powa,” where she sounds sexy, innocent, and demanding all at once. Her messages come through even louder and clearer than they did on Bird Brains, and they’re just as bold and complicated as their surroundings. Throughout the album, Garbus tackles violence, power and identity, shaping “America” into a love-hate anthem of her own on “My Country” and confessing her secret feelings about a policeman on “Riotriot”: “You had come to put handcuffs on my brother/I dreamt of making love to you.” Yet as clearly as she sees danger and corruption, she still leaves room for hope and innocence on the dark, delicate lullaby “Woollywollygong.” W H O K I L L is a tour de force of sounds and ideas that are as intimate as a conversation and as striking as a manifesto, and shows that Garbus is capable of just about anything.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares