Firstly, major apologies. I bought this album the day it came out in May and just haven’t reviewed it. It’s not laziness or the fact that I couldn’t think of the words to describe Nikki Nack, but for reasons that are too long to explain right now it got shelved, I accidentally forgot about it and then rediscovered this as my only draft blog post. Whoops. I’m not usually that late with things.
Now that I’ve got that out the way, did I ever mention how amazing Nikki Nack is? It’s one of my favourite albums of the year so far and unlike the effort by Ramona Lisa, it’s an album bearing a disposition that is completely synchronous with summer; it’s fresh and filled with sunshine. Despite having some pretty dark themes buried under there. Nikki Nack is Tune-Yards’ third album after Whokill and Bird-Brains, which both had a distinctly different, more experimental vibe to them. That’s not to say that Merrill Garbus and her band of merry men have mellowed or have sold out; it’s not really possible for someone with such a diverse background and creative imagination as Garbus to go fully mainstream. Garbus is something of a visionary and completely free-spirit and this shows even on the more accessible Nikki Nack, an album that will still alienate many but will nevertheless earn the band a host of new fans.
Garbus’ music has always been playful but extremely confident. Before recording her first album, Garbus worked as a babysitter at Martha’s Vineyard. The isolation helped Garbus define her own voice and the juvenile company undoubtedly lent her the playfulness that has since punctuated her music. This is still the case on Nikki Nack, but there are occasions where a more serious and reserved edge comes to the fore. ‘Time of Dark’ and ‘Look Around’ are examples of songs where Garbus decides to slow things down, let the audience breathe more. But in doing so, you can also hear the extremely confident stride and reach of her voice; an atypical pop singer’s voice, a voice that is extremely earthy and unafraid to reach for heights it isn’t quite sure it can achieve, only to surpass those barriers. Garbus is undoubtedly the central force and unifying factor in Tune-Yards’ music, holding the complex compositions and copious amounts of percussion together with its vigour. ‘Hey Life’ demonstrates this excellently, as Garbus is accompanied by one of the sparsest tracks on the album, flipping amazingly between spoken word, quasi-rapping and blaring singing with incomparable ease. At times she is accompanied by Grammy-award-winning vocal group a Roomful of Teeth, a collective who also like to do strange and beguiling things with their voices. The collaborations between the two are perfectly married together and allow Tune-Yards to establish a more powerful, vocal-orientated sound.
Of course, no Tune-Yards album would really be complete without some odd imagery and strange, unexpected themes. Garbus’ lyrics are always tampered with an innocent, childlike tendency that often ironizes the violence and depth that she expounds elsewhere. On ‘Real Thing,’ Garbus yelps ‘I come from the land of slaves/ Let’s go Redskins, let’s go Braves!’ Her clashing choice of imagery displays an imagination of contrasts, one that is fully aware of the hardships of the world but decides to look upon them with technicolour, innocent eyes. A spoken-word interlude, ‘Why Do We Dine On the Tots?’ was written as a story when Garbus was working as a puppeteer. Having a spoken-word interlude on any other album might be considered pretentious but it works with Tune-Yards, bridging the gap between two sections of the album as well as giving Garbus more time to demonstrate her excellent story-telling credentials.
Lead single ‘Water Fountain’ contains the lines ‘I saved up all my pennies and I gave them to this special guy/ When he got sick of them he bought himself a cherry pie/ He gave me a dollar, a blood-soaked dollar/ I cannot get the spot out but it’s okay it still works at the store.’ The homely imagery of collected pennies and American cherry pie contrasts against the blood-soaked dollar Garbus eventually receives. But rather than muse on this, she quickly tails off and assures us that it still works at the store – the hints of violence are skipped over, normalized. This is part of what makes Tune-Yards’ world so enticing – what happens is never predictable and the lyrics always throw up new contradictions and clashing scenarios. Even those lines from ‘Water Fountain’ display a tendency towards the unexpected; there’s too many words in the last line to sing in the rhythm of the rest of the verse, so Garbus just launches into a quick burst of spoken word to get the job done.
Garbus and Tune-Yards often draw comparisons to Dirty Projectors and St. Vincent. It’s easy to see why that’s the case. All three bands treat the surreal and weird as if they’re normal, encountering and documenting everyday life through a convex lens that distorts everything but never acknowledging the strangeness of the situations. Garbus’ outfit is the most extreme of the three; while Dirty Projectors can often be experimental, they’ve also ventured much more firmly into the mainstream with some of their output. Tune-Yards, on the other hand, continue to forge paths where others fear to tread. Never worrying that their sound might be too esoteric or plain odd for an audience, Tune-Yards always sound like they’re just having the best time making the music they actually want to make. As previously stated, Nikki Nack certainly isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste but there’s certainly something here to admire even if Garbus’ style isn’t your cup of tea.