After the joy that was contained within her rough-around-edges debut BiRd-BrAiNs, recorded using a simple digital recorder and free mixing software, the question was always going to be what effect a slightly less DIY approach would have on the unique sound of Merril Garbus, or whether she would keep things as unpolished on her follow-up. The great news is that she has managed to retain what makes her an exciting artist and augment it when necessary with a fuller sound or slightly more production. Yes, this is a more polished final product but that doesn't mean it isn't risky, in fact there's at least one track here that pushes things a little further than anything on that first album, and most importantly this is a sophomore album that doesn't disappoint, that makes you excited all over again about music which can be both popular and edgy.
Tribal drums, looped vocal instrumentation and distorted lead vocals on my country are all familiar and it's not until a huge keyboard stab comes halfway through that you realise what a bit of support can do giving the track an invigorating injection. Horns, group vocals, cowbells and marimba are all added to the mix in a furious finish that ends with the isolated line 'the worst thing about living a lie is just wondering when they'll find out.' that presumably referring to the lie of the American dream, which Garbus is keen to deconstruct, for after all 'we cannot all have it.' The first appearance of heavier guitars comes on es-so along with a stand up bass and Rhodes piano to help create a funky, almost jazzy sound which will be repeated on other tracks. But it finishes with an alarm sound that leads into one of the albums more adventurous tracks, gangsta, which opens with the challenge,'What's a boy to do if he'll never be a gangsta?' There's a sinister chorus with its shouted refrain, 'BANG BANG BANG - oye/ Never move to my hood/ 'Cause danger is crawling out the wood' and then the track breaks apart near the end with the instrumentation and vocals fracturing, moving all over the place if you happen to listen on headphones. It's a thrilling end to a powerful song.
There is a variation on a theme from the first album with the track powa, which adds electric guitar to Garbus' favoured ukelele. She also softens her vocals here in places, showing that she isn't just a belter, although the amazing high notes she hits at the end show that she's an odd match to Aguilera, Carey et al. It's an intensely personal track about the ambiguities of one relationship, the power that can be wielded by one's partner. ''Baby bring me home to bed/ I need you to press me down/ Before my body flies away from me' and later 'Mirror mirror on the wall/ Can you see my face at all?/ My man likes me from behind/ Tell the truth I never mind' The whole track is great example of how she has already developed as an artist in the space of the two albums.
The light ukelele sound is darkened and perverted on riotriot, a fascinating song lyrically which appears to about a sexual fantasy involving a policeman who's come to arrest her brother. It's another track which indulges in a jazzy breakdown halfway through and then accelerates with heavier guitars as Garbus shouts out, 'There is a freedom in violence that I don't understand/ And that I've never felt before.' First single bizness goes back somewhat to the afro-pop influences of BiRd-BrAiNs adding some horns to the sampled vocal loops and bass line and making much more of a production of things than anything on that debut. The groove is much lighter on doorstep even though it deals with the police shooting 'my baby as he crossed over my doorstep.' The return of the police adds some more colour to riotriot of course and the album begins to show more clearly its themes of unrest.
youyesyou returns to the idea of privilege - 'I was born to do it!/ My daddy had enough so I put my back into it/ That man was born to do it too/ He didn't have enough so he can't sing for you.' and for all its playfulness musically ends with another challenge 'Throw your money on the ground and leave it there!/ You yes you.' As I said earlier, Garbus has really developed her voice and on the extraordinarily intimate lullaby, woolywoolygong it is like she's singing right into your ear, showing great control and all the more effectively conveying that worry of bringing up a child in the modern world. There's a haunting line in the melody just as she sings 'Cause they'll try to arm you/ That's what they'll do.' That concern is turned into attack on the album closer, killa. 'I'm a new kinda woman/ I'm a don't take shit from you kinda woman' she sings as if we didn't already know that. There are some pretty powerful subjects tackled on this album, and a fair bit of anger too, but as she makes clear, 'All my violence is here in the sound' and on an album that sees her brilliantly supported and produced, that unique voice seems more powerful than ever.
And if you don't believe me then there is still (so far) the chance to listen to the whole album for free by following this link to a stream from The Guardian. Or watch the video for bizness below.