By the time Merrill Garbus, who performs under the name tUnE-yArDs, uses her own sampled voice to replicate the sounds of kora and gamelan on the arresting track "Bizness," it's easy to fall under her irreverent spell. She shuffles, sorts and folds together industrial jazz, clattering no-wave noise, static-laden hip-hop and Caribbean and African dance rhythms.
The result may seem like cacophony to the casual listener, but the musical collages on Garbus' fascinating sophomore album are substantial: She addresses gender, race, sexuality and identity with a postmodern, post-feminist sensibility. Her insights are frank, such as on the leadoff track, "My Country," on which she sings, "The thing about living a lie is just wondering when they'll find out."
Garbus made her 2009 debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, mostly alone with a digital voice recorder and editing software. In contrast, she created w h o k i l l primarily in conventional studios with engineer Eli Crews and a small assortment of sidemen, most notably bassist Nate Brenner, who weaves an agile groove throughout.
Her tunes may flirt with sweet melodies—her multi-tracked vocals combine doo-wop and reggae, for example, on "Doorstep" and "Killa"—but she also ventures into road-less-traveled territories, injecting aggressive rhythms into "Gangsta" and crooning a ragamuffin lullaby on "Powa." The lo-fi, percussive "Riotriot" is almost a gentle daydream, until cascading sheets of jazzy saxophone overtake it.
Typographic eccentricities aside, this album will reward attentive fans hungry for challenging music that strays in and out of the indie-folk and world-pop realms.