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by Ali Hibbs on May 11, 2011

Merril Garbus has the kind of voice that deserves a full-tilt Afrobeat band watching its back, which makes the humble scale and peculiar instrumentation of her tUnE-yArDs project all the more engaging. After 2009’s Bird-Brains asserted her lo-fi iconoclasm, Garbus has preserved her whatever’s-at-hand DIY sound, even while reaching for (and grasping) a more polished and accessible sophomore studio effort. Ukulele, drums, bass and saxophone (not to mention many layers of Garbus’ muscular voice) consititute the range of sounds you’ll hear on w h o k i l l, but she’s done away with the background fuzz and audible clicks of the loop pedal that gave her first recording its endearing innocence.

“There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand and like I’ve never felt before,” she proclaims on “Riotriot,” pushing the innocence aside with politcal conviction and a pervasive ethos of struggle that seems true to the elements of Afrobeat and reggae that are growing stronger in her music. Bassist Nate Brenner’s bouyant lines aid in this process. But just as Garbus, armed with a loop pedal, tackles the bulk of the work by herself, her sound spurns strict idiom. Opener “My Country” is a chattering dance track, not unlike Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” while “Gangsta” is heavy street beat reminiscent of M.I.A., and “Es-So” seems to imagine Captain Beefheart as a member of the Digable Planets.

“Bizness,” though, is thus far the apotheosis of her sound. An immaculate loop of cascading vocal snippets becomes the bed upon which Garbus makes her plea for survival. She may identify as a victim, but this is deeply empowered music.