Release Date: May 6, 2014
Record label: 4AD
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock
Review Summary: A joyous record that combines bold experimentation with pop sensibilities to dazzling effect.It's been an incredibly strong year for fearless women in music thus far as the new trailblazing albums from Annie Clark and Neneh Cherry attest. Oakland native Merrill Garbus, who releases her adventurous pop music under the moniker tUnE-yArDs, joins the ranks of these artists with easily her best album yet. Garbus' revered second offering w h o k i l l contained such cutting-edge pop tunes as 'Bizness,' 'Gangsta' and 'Powa,' but its inconsistent songwriting resulted in a frustratingly uneven outing that one moment amazed with primal energy, the next disappointed with formless structure.
tUnE-yArDs' music thrives on contradictions, not the least of which is how an album as singular as W H O K I L L earned the critical consensus to top The Village Voice's 2011 Pazz and Jop poll. The fascinating dualities continue on Nikki Nack: Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner's third album is also their most musically sophisticated, yet its primal emotions come through even more clearly. It's not that Nikki Nack is more focused than the band's previous work, since it's overflowing with sounds and ideas (and Garbus has always had a firm grasp on her aesthetic).
Music can do many things, but it’s at its best when it moves you. It can move your heart, move your feet or move your brain. And, on rare occasions, it can move all three. When it does that, it’s impossible not to feel like every synapse in your body is reacting to it. As an experiment, take ….
Hugely anticipated since the wind-down of her second album, Merrill Garbus’ third long-player arrives with great expectations chained to it. Under her typographically antagonistic moniker tUnE-yArDs, Garbus – assisted by Nate Brenner on bass duties – is set to drop Nikki Nack, perhaps named after the mischievous shit in The Man With The Golden Gun. Influenced by her sojourns between w h o k i l l and now, including visits to Haiti and, apparently, the ‘80s TV staple Pee Wee’s Playhouse, she approaches her third record with a more detached mindset, allowing myriad produces to lend a hand.
Merrill Garbus is the harbinger of so-called “ugly pop.” Since we last encountered her tUnE-yArDs project with 2011’s universally adored w h o k i l l, Garbus was tutored by a drum master from Haiti, where she ventured to embrace non-Western music. The result is a thoroughly cross-cultural album dripping with soul and iconoclasm. It’s fun, too; there are party anthems and a funny spoken-word interlude.
Merrill Garbus started recording music as tUnE-yArDs while working as a babysitter on Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Funny things happen to solitary people in quiet places. You talk to yourself. You expand to fit the space. You realize "you" might be more than one ….
There's never been an obvious way to define tUnE-yArDs. Merrill Garbus' turbulent transmissions of pulsing rhythm and unconscious reels of garbled poetry are almost always unplaceable. For the Connecticut native, parameters or boundaries just don't exist. The sounds she makes are feral—shaped, scarred, and molded by the environment that surrounds her.
It's noted in her press release that Merrill Garbus started anew with Nikki Nack, unlearning already-refined skills in singing and drumming to form a new batch of songs, but in the process, she has also introduced a new arsenal of tools to the mix. That's immediately apparent on aptly titled opener "Find A New Way," with its eloquent organs and heavy-hitting drum machines. This is Garbus' new way, and it's one that proves successful.Rhythms derived from Haitian music and Afro-pop still remain the driving force behind most tracks, but it's now holding much more weight, bolstering a technicolour array of sounds less reliant on the ukulele, Garbus' old centrepiece.
Since the release of w h o k i l l, tUnE-yArDs mastermind Merrill Garbus has spent her time studying syncopated rhythms, taking Haitian dancing and drumming lessons, and visiting Haiti for two weeks, per this Mother Jones interview. The change in sound is immediately apparent. w h o k i l l began proclaiming its American roots; titled My Country, the opening song quotes and then corrupts a patriotic American verse, following “my country ‘tis of thee/sweet land of liberty” with “how come I cannot see my future within your arms,” a scathing indictment antithetical to any “land of liberty,” that promises opportunity.
The opening track on tUnE-yArDs’ latest effort Nikki Nack is named “Find a New Way” and it represents a conscious effort on the part of mad scientist songwriter Merrill Garbus to reinvent herself. While she told Pitchfork that she ditched “Find a New Way” as a working title for the new album because she felt it was “cheesy”, it does ultimately capture the spirit of what’s happening on Nikki Nack: Even though tUnE-yArDs’ rambunctious eclecticism hasn’t mellowed out at all on Nikki Nack, Garbus has, well, found a new way to channel her overactive imagination into song this time around, working with outside producers for the first time and taking voice, percussion, and dance training for inspiration. As Garbus has explained it, her attempt to approach things from a different perspective came from feeling artistically stifled after 2011’s w h o k i l l, which, ironically enough, was considered by pretty much everyone else as one of the more original creative breakthroughs in recent memory.
On her critic-wowing 2011 breakout, Whokill, Merrill Garbus made sexy, kinetic pop out of avant-folk vocal technique and hip-hop flow. Following such head-rush originality ain't easy. But her third LP, cut with bass-minded partner Nate Brenner, suggests an innovator in for the long haul. There's Haitian-inflected groove voodoo and self-aware cultural politics ("I come from the land of slaves/Let's go, Redskins! Let's go, Braves!" she chants on "Real Thing").
While ‘Nikki Nack’ contains a dizzying level of detail, its strength is the bright and brash sense of adventure underpinning it all. Merrill Garbus’ complicated but catchy style of songwriting dates back to her 2009 debut, ‘Bird-Brains’, where she used a ukulele and some clunky beats to mash together strands of Tanzanian folk, show tunes and hip-hop. Two albums later and the New Englander’s band are trying harder than ever to squirm free of convention.With only Nate Brenner’s burbling basslines for an anchor, ‘Nikki Nack’ stampedes through complex arrangements and chaotic rhythms that are shaped, in places, by the input of producers Malay (Alicia Keys, Frank Ocean) and John Hill (Santigold, MIA).
Merrill Garbus is torn between success and stagnation, her country and its hypocrisies, nostalgia and change. In the three years since her last album, w h o k i l l, the Oakland-based songwriter and vocal acrobat has topped the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll and toured arenas with Arcade Fire, all while trying to maintain her brash, avant-garde sensibilities. Nikki Nack is the result of these warring emotions and priorities, with Garbus railing against the world while simultaneously celebrating its fluorescent beauty.
It’s fair to say listening to tUnE-yArDs is unlike listening to anyone else. Merrill Garbus creates a rainbow of sounds pouring from the speaker, raining down in vivid, joyous life-affirming Technicolor.Previous album ‘w h o k i l l’ was a magical marriage of lyrics on femininity and sexuality and bright, glorious and bonkers melodies and sing-song chants. Now she returns with ‘Nikki Nack’, an album which remains just as idiosyncratic but is even catchier and even bolder.Sonically, where the saxophone played a central part last time, here it’s drums and synths.
The drums will always get you going. Take away drums, and you’ve probably got some placid folk song or a butane-torch-bearing ballad. Tranquilize the tempos too much and you’ve either got woozy, contemplative trip-hop, or you’ve got a nostalgic, breath-catching slow dance for night’s comedown. But drums — via live kits, Casio samples, or electronic pads — are best employed to propel the body: whether inspired from seminal techno, from West African music, or from modern avant-garde noise-pop, the cadence keeps us beating on, bodies against the current and into varying states of dance.
Merrill Garbus could sing about what she had for breakfast and make it sound scintillating. She's almost that self-absorbed on her third album as Tune-Yards: several songs are preoccupied with the idea of being a singer ("Oh my god I use my lungs!"), the doubt triggered by acclaim, and the struggle to create. She questions the life opened up to her by the success of her 2011 album Whokill as vigorously as she embraces it; her music follows suit, reeling with contradictions.
Ever since Tune-Yards' early single ‘Real Life Flesh’, Merrill Garbus has been fixated on the corporeal. She’s not only obsessed with the place that she’s from, but with the land it sits on. She’s not just examining her sense of self, but the body which gives it home. These are themes which continue to mature across Nikki Nack, where abstractions are personified (‘Hey Life’) and the listener is confronted by the raw materials of existence at every turn – water, soil and body parts everywhere.
For tUnE-yArDs' third album, Oakland-based Merrill Garbus used a handful of new instruments to create her sonic fusion of Afropop, experimental folk and R&B: drum machines; a bag of white rice whacked like a cowbell; a leather-cushioned stool as a snare; a Casio keyboard she received as a gift when she was nine; and the boula, a small Haitian drum that Garbus learned to play while visiting the country last spring. But despite her new musical toys, her voice - as always - is the most impressive instrument. Garbus's vocals transform from a piercing, chanting choir to silky-smooth spoken word without missing a beat.
Merrill Garbus, armed with a ukulele, an assortment of brass and percussion instruments and looping pedals, has performed with bassist Nate Brenner under the tUnE-yArDs moniker since 2009. It was 2011’s W H O K I L L, however, that gave tUnE-yArDs the indie recognition that it deserves. The seemingly odd musical aesthetic drew part of the intrigue and created some of the charm.
Merrill Garbus's teemingly inventive debut led to much name-dropping in indie circles, while the tribal beats of her second album established her at the wilder frontiers of US pop. There's no shortage of ideas on her third; its pile-up of playground chants, synth squelches and percussive clutter delivers some terrific moments but the songs' fidgety unpredictability comes at a price. Garbus's voice is jostled too much amid the hectic production to allow its personality to shine through and, with some notable exceptions (the call and response of Real Thing), hooks are hurried on before properly taking root.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. I've had a couple of harsh lessons, recently, in not judging a book by its cover; or, more specifically in not judging a band by its name. There'd never been any real impetus for me to listen to Cloud Nothings, given what an insipid a moniker they go by, but Here and Nowhere Else blew me away with the sheer force of its energy.
Merrill Garbus plays fast and loose with cultural signifiers, and her band name alone indicates an antagonistic bent with its case-shifting approximation: tUnE-yArDs. For her third official album, Nikki Nack, Garbus ventures even farther down her multi-colored, veering rabbit hole, picking up where her 2011 sophomore effort, w h o k i l l , left off, but not necessarily achieving the same success. Her proper debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, was initially released on Marriage Records and then reissued by 4AD in 2009, but it was w h o k i l l that racked up critical approval and a cult following for Garbus’ quirky, vibrant vocal layering and flashy pop mosaics.
In some respects, Merrill Garbus has come a long way since 2009, when she released her debut as Tune-Yards. That record, the eclectic Bird-Brains, was a homemade delight full of tape loops, faraway vocals, and found-recording snippets. In contrast, Nikki Nack, Garbus’ third effort, is polished, meticulously produced, and very much a studio effort.
opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis > A strange debate erupted shortly after tUnE-yArDs’ whokilltopped the Village Voice’s 2011 Pazz and Jop poll, ahead of Watch the Throne and a little-known release from Adele. It started when Chuck Klosterman penned an off-the-cuff take of the album for Grantland. Though whokill’s merits (or lack thereof) were ostensibly the purpose of the piece, his true subject was consensus and when it goes wrong.
The first time I heard Merrill Garbus, aka tUnE-yArDs, I was watching the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black. I found Gangsta (from 2011’s WHOKILL) by Googling the lyrics, and from that point on I was transfixed by her unpredictability and the unique nature of her music. In any tUnE-yArDs song, there are about a million things going on. Her music and nature is, putting it as simply as possible, otherworldly.
Tune-Yards Nikki Nack (4AD) Much like my favorite childhood texts, dark narratives constructed around general silliness, Merrill Garbus' third album as Tune-Yards ushers us onto a playground teeming with Haitian drums, recess rhymes, and Eighties R&B. Sociopolitical themes pulse under the carnival melee, every sonic silver lining inlaid with stark thematics. Lead single "Water Fountain" builds to handclaps and whoops, bassist Nate Brenner thumping the track to cohesion, but for all the musical romp, Garbus decries capitalism and works in a Macbeth reference: "He gave me a dollar/ A blood-soaked dollar/ I cannot get the spot out/ But that's OK/ It still works in the store.
There's no denying that like all albums by typographers' nightmare tUnE-yArDs, “Nikki Nack” is ear candy, crammed with shards of looped instruments poking their heads above ground like skittish gophers and odd, counterintuitive vocal rhythms. Even a seemingly simple spoken-word tale like “Interlude: Why Do We Dine on the Tots?” isn’t so straightforward, using any number of recording effects to collapse, layer, and repeat the lines upon one another. But as always, the most interesting effect is Merrill Garbus’s voice.