Merrill Garbus has an expressive minotaur of a voice. It is like silly putty, stretching if pulled slowly and snapping if yanked. She can coo gently, then give a diaphragmal yelp. On “Gangsta,” a key cut off of her glorious sophomore album, whokill, she quickly sings, “If you move into her neighborhood/You’ll never make a sound,” turning “sound” into an almost obtrusive shout. Everything has an elastic, bouncy quality that is hard to achieve with looping drums and a ukulele.
Just as Brian Wilson created pocket symphonies, whokill has pocket power ballads. “Powa” is a grand piece of catharsis, with Garbus singing to her lover, “I need you to press me down before my body flies away from me,” followed by a “woo!” from the studio. The song leans on the same groove until the bottom drops out halfway, then comes back as Garbus roars, “You bomb me with life’s humiliations every day/You bomb me so many times I never found my way.” A lesser song would have a searing guitar solo, but instead, Garbus goes back to the vamp, engaging in upper-register theatrics that kill.
Songs go from one groove to another, unpredictable pieces of drum and vocal loops. The better news is that each section is unbearably catchy—songs like “Bizness” are all hooks piled on top of each other. Often the songs just stop, give a few off-tempo drum hits, then launch right back into the groove.
Garbus’ personality Colors the whole record. Lyrics can range from the ebullience of the music, to personal and moving. Garbus is a weird one, and her insistence of being a little difficult might put off some listeners, similar to Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, another skewed piece of indie-pop (albeit a masterpiece, which whokill is not). This is very much her record—it’s a fractured gorgeousness, with Garbus embracing her oddness in a gesture of self-love that results in an alarming, startling, fun and playful record.