"Ladies and gentlemen, Merrill is performing at the..." That's as much introduction as we're given before Merrill Garbus herself yanks away the microphone and starts the show. The second album by tUnE-yArDs is defined from its opening seconds by false starts, sudden stops and quick changes worthy of the typographic jumble that is the band's name. As the woman at the center of the madness, Garbus seems to delight in the uncertainty of it all, keeping us in the dark just long enough that when she finally showers us with light, we jump a little in our seats.
The new record, w h o k i l l, is just as maddening to type out as its predecessor, BiRd-BrAiNs, but sonically it's a big change for Garbus. Her 2009 debut was recorded when tUnE-yArDs was nothing but her and her toys — a ukulele, a smattering of percussion and her own birdlike vocals, which she looped and layered together with a hand-held voice recorder and a lot of resourcefulness.
For w h o k i l l, Garbus took the party to a studio and brought friends, a decision she reportedly agonized over. No need to worry: The instrumentation remains spare and the vision is still Garbus' own. But with a wider dynamic range to play around in and some bass and saxophone to hold down the low end, she's loosened her grip a bit, and the result is music that sounds alive and animated — maybe even self-aware.
Nowhere is this feeling more dramatic than in the standout track "Gangsta," in which voices leap, mid-syllable, from one stereo channel to the other and piercing peaks of treble morph suddenly into pulsing troughs of bass. The song collapses into chaos halfway through and then reassembles itself, piece by piece. Each clattering drumbeat, each raw horn blast, each yelp and wail and hiccup of Garbus' elastic voice seems to have a mind of its own.
tUnE-yArDs opened with "Gangsta" for its performance at NPR Music's SXSW showcase at The Parish back in March. Listen closely to the archive of that show and you can make out an audience member shouting, "Wow!" when the drums kick in. No argument there.