Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • BiRd-BrAiNs [4AD, 2009] A
  • w h o k i l l [4AD, 2011] A
  • Nikki Nack [4AD, 2014] A-
  • I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life [4AD, 2018] A-
  • Sketchy [4AD, 2021] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

BiRd-BrAiNs [4AD, 2009]
In a lo-fi universe overloaded with youneek sonic experiments of no consequence to anyone but a small circle of "friends," ex-puppeteer, ex-nanny Merrill Garbus ventures into the great big world and creates a private one built for sharing. Deploying a dictaphone and some sampling shareware, she extracts beats and/or effects from found sounds I know to include kitchen implements, children's voices, and the Martha's Vineyard ferry. She also learns to use a beatbox, plays mucho ukulele, and sings like a folk musicians' daughter who digs show tunes and madrigal, which is what she is. My breakthrough track was a Mbuti pygmy rip that respected the depth of its sources rather than cuting them up, but soon enough very different tracks slipped in alongside. There was a bonus, too. DIY though she may be, Garbus writes a fair number of love or relationship songs. And she's too kind, proud, and down-to-earth to pretend they're anything else. A

w h o k i l l [4AD, 2011]
Leaping and flowing, growling and crooning, exclaiming and explaining, stopping short for horns and glitches you had no idea were coming, Merrill Garbus's second album has the tune power and groove appeal normal music lovers put on repeat. And if too many normal music lovers think it's abnormal, at least she's hired a bassist, not to mention a studio into which at least a dozen other living musicians are suspected to have ventured. I don't suppose it'll help much to venture that Garbus contains in one person the finest attributes of Captain Beefheart and Phoebe Snow, not with the former a demigod and the latter a footnote. But she does reconstitute roots tonalities and procedures without hermeticism or egomania, and she does roll around in her enormous voice without bathos or undue expressionism. And though you won't wonder about the lyrics until you've had your fill of the music, she tells you what she has to say in the opening "My Country" and explores its ramifications for 10 songs and 42 minutes. "When they have nothing why do you have something?" she asks, with the "you" encompassing both herself and her country. "The worst thing about living a lie is just wondering when they'll find out," she warns, with the "they" encompassing have-nothings everywhere. That is, she deploys her superb music to address an issue so pressing few can stand to think about it: who kills who? A

Nikki Nack [4AD, 2014]
Where Merrill Garbus's contemporaries pro and con hear a boldly experimental self-expresser/cultural appropriator, I've always slotted her as a hyperconscious, hyperemotional misfit with a long-gone weight problem and a generous voice. From the start she's extracted her exhilaration from an insecurity that sounded hard for her to bear. I've encountered many such people in my life, most of them not too deeply--they're hard to take. But because they're so hyper they make excellent early warning systems and political consciences. Some may wonder why two different songs fret about the water supply. I believe it's because she lives in California, end of story. Some may wonder why she devotes an entire track to four lines about a rocking chair. I imagine it's because she became self-conscious about breaking it and composed the song in the ensuing insomnia. Somewhat more overwrought than its predecessors, this album is harder to take as a result. But it's also hookier and more clearly recorded. And as a musical sensor she has few peers. A-

I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life [4AD, 2018]
Merrill Garbus has a gift for embarrassing people, especially by caring so deeply about the unpackable racial complexities her music has always addressed head on. It's these complexities she's now chastised for making a mess of in a time-slip when African-Americans have earned the right to charge appropriation whenever white musicians venture into racial territory, which is such a relief to the many white people eager to let things ride. On an album marked by the theme statements "I must be witness to everything," "Honesty, honesty gone / Don't know right from wrong," and "I know I'm not to be trusted," she acknowledges more white guilt than she's probably incurred, so of course sometimes she's clumsy about it. Who isn't? But with decisive input from bassist-lifemate Nate Brenner, her musicality--smoother here, perhaps due to the black-pop softeners some reviewers descry--remains something to believe in. Proud against her better judgment, she can't stop exploring her art or living her life. "Sitting in the middle of the Sixth Extinction / Silently suggesting the investment in a generator," she gives no sign she'll ever stop flailing away at everything that makes her crazy and compels her to sing. A-

Sketchy [4AD, 2021]
More forceful yet more lyrical than ever, Merrill Garbus's fifth album since she broke in at 30 is her and fully vetted bassist Nate Brenner's most aesthetically willful yet listener-friendly so far--to put it plainly, their very best. Never shy, never overbearing, its soundscape is less irregular without smoothing the jaggedy rhythms over and its lyrics skirt specificity nicely as they honor a dying planet. While it's true that "Homewrecker" could well be an actual real estate guy, "My Neighbor" is simply an "enemy" and both old and female at that--one who ultimately inspires the cooed refrain "Let me love, let me love, let me love, let me love." The keystone is "Hold Myself," where the parents who "betrayed us even when they tried" are all the reason a 42-year-old needs to remain childless. Or are they? A

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