Though both are basically solo artists (not to diminish the contributions of tUnE-yArDs bassist Nate Brenner) who write their own material, Merrill Garbus and Sıla Gençoğlu have little else in common: the song structures on W H O K I L L are boldly original where Joker follows pop conventions; Sıla's sound is smooth and sophisticated while tUnE-yArDs is unapologetically unpolished; Garbus multitracks most of the instruments herself while Gençoğlu - at least on Joker - relies on live band interaction. It's overly reductive but not inaccurate to say that Sıla's approach is communitarian while Garbus's is individualistic. It perhaps goes without saying that Joker has been unnoticed by U.S. reviewers, after W H O K I L L was a critics' darling and Pazz & Jop winner. Finally, Garbus has a raw, instantly identifiable vocal approach, and Sıla adapts her singing style to suit each number without binding herself to a particular, locatable identity. That got me thinking (for once).
Film criticism has long differentiated between actors and movie stars, on the grounds that you go to see an actor to see her - Meryl Streep being the most obvious example - or him disappear into the character they're portraying, whereas you go to see a movie star play herself or himself (or at least the same approximation of same that they play in every other movie). And the underlying assumption has been that as great as a movie star may be (Katharine Hepburn, say), the actor is performing at a higher artistic level. What seems curious to me is that rock critics (and me as much as anyone) have tended to assume the opposite, that the sui generis performer is making the authentic artistic statement, while the singer who loses her/himself in the tune is more or less a hack. Someone pointed out to me a while ago that one reason critics dislike Billy Joel so much is that he played characters in his songs, in the musical theater tradition, rather than sounding his own barbaric yawp. I'm not retracting any of negative things I've said or thought about Joel over the years, but it's a good point: while it's one thing to assert that his parade of 70s Brooklyn guys - Joey, Eddie, whoever it is who walked through Bedford-Stuy alone - are too similar to each other, it's bordering on puerile to complain that they aren't authentically him. Without a doubt, Garbus's accomplishment is more audacious, but I think it's equally indisputable that Gençoğlu's inhabiting of received forms is more subtle and in its way more difficult: Self-expression is essential, but I in privileging it over empathy I - and I’d say I’m not alone in this - have gone too far. (DBW)