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New Music: tUnE-yArDs – Nikki Nack

Tune-Yards

tUnE-yArDsNikki Nack

4-BamsTop Tracks:
“Water Fountain”
“Real Thing”
“Hey Life”

Album Highlights: “Oh my God I use my lungs – soft and loud, anyway feels good.” Merrill Garbus returns with Nikki Nack, the third Tune-Yards album and follow-up to 2011’s critically-adored W H O K I L L, and it’s those lungs that are again the star of the show. Over 13 tracks of playful and percussive art-pop, Garbus wrestles with self-doubt & rootlessness, and engages her social conscience through the jubilant and explosive power of her voice.

Nikki Nack excels when Garbus is focused on personal inspiration – as on the meditative opening track “Find a New Way”, about getting herself out of a creative rut, and the buoyant “Hey Life”, where she struggles with feeling overextended and unable to slow down. In lesser hands this kind of subject matter could feel trite, but Garbus’ exuberant spirit and giddy talent for genre collages make the songs feel genuinely life-affirming. It’s exhilarating to hear her belt out lines such as “I’d like to smell the roses but I’m running running all of the time,” and “I come from the land of slaves, let’s go Redskins let’s go Braves” for the first time, a sensation that is then topped on successive listens when you’re singing along at the top of your lungs with her.

Garbus’ voice once again handles the lion’s share of the melodic elements on Nikki Nack, while bass, percussion and kitschy synths provide most of the rhythmic and harmonic support (her ukelele sits on the sideline for much of the duration). The crackling eclecticism of W H O K I L L has been reigned in ever so slightly on Nikki Nack, and while Tune-Yards’ music now sounds familiar in a way that it didn’t before, there are still moments that feel genuinely fresh for this project, as on the rousing “Time of Dark” and the serene, R&B-tinged “Wait for a Minute”.

But Garbus doesn’t have to surprise in order to dazzle. Lead single “Water Fountain” is quintessential Tune-Yards – the song marries a exuberant jump-rope rhyme with lyrics about dying cities and Haiti’s food crisis, and pulls it off with aplomb. She’s at her most sassy on “Real Thing, an afro/synthpop/doo-wop/hip-hop hybrid that plays with the inherent contradiction of trying to find our true selves. And then there’s “Why Do We Dine On the Tots?” a Swiftian interlude about food ethics that provides some twisted comic relief before the album’s home stretch.

Album Lowlight: When Garbus shifts her attention on Nikki Nack to social issues, the results are mixed. “Stop That Man” attempts to address white guilt in the aftermath of Treyvon Martin/George Zimmerman, but the plea in the song’s chorus falls strangely flat. Bouncy album closer “Manchild”, takes on date-rape with the memorable refrain “I mean it – don’t beat up on my body,” and although it’s a rallying cry worth supporting, the song ultimately feels like a missed opportunity. But the album’s single certifiable dud is “Sink-O”, a busy, sugary number that wouldn’t be out of place on an irritating children’s TV show, and is only redeemed by the fact that it provides greater appreciation for how often Tune-Yards does this kind of thing right.

Takeaway: The acrobatic physicality of Garbus’ voice is, once again, complimented on Nikki Nack by songs that fully inhabit the corporeal and spiritual worlds. “There will be always something to lean your weight into,” she sings on “Look Around”. It’s a declaration of loyalty and interconnection, and it’s an act of the body. Everywhere on Nikki Nack these two concerns meet in songs that feel therapeutic – both for the listening audience and, I’m sure, Garbus herself – because of the sense of spiritual innocence, wonder, optimism and love for life manifested through her voice (and the beating of her drums). Tune-Yards will likely still remain a cult favorite, as Garbus’ unconventional femininity and outsized personality can strike some as garish and off-putting. But for listeners who are able to tune in to her wacky frequency, Tune-Yards leaves one feeling stimulated and edified, and hopefully inspired. Nikki Nack is idiosyncratic soul music, and though not without its missteps, it’s alive in a way that little music today is.

~Karl Kukta


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