Merrill Garbus, the creative force behind Tune-Yards, started with a ukulele, an audio editing program called audacity, and the DIY spirit, recording her debut album Bird-Brains through a personal voice recorder over the course of two years. In her next album, Whokill, she expanded and matured her sound quite a bit–adding a dedicated bassist and incorporating saxophones, and recording in-studio to give a more mature sound, making for a compelling listen. In Nikki Nack, Merrill Garbus progresses her the sound even further, ditching the ukulele entirely for bouncy electronics and a focus on vocals.
The album opens with “Find a New Way”, in which Garbus’s voice and an electronic harpsichord soar over over a constantly changing drum machine beat. It’s a beautiful and jubilant song that subverts whatever expectations you might have about music arranged with a piece of software. The song jumps around quite a bit, seemingly throwing in every discontinuity, change in meter, new instrument, and vocal flourish possible at just the right times to compete for your attention. It makes for a great opener.
Water Fountain, Nikki Nack’s first single, relies on a simple, child-like melody over improvised percussion. Garbus has incorporated a childlike aesthetic into her work before, and Nikki Nack is no exception.
Time of Dark is atmospheric track in which Garbus sings under synths and the repetition of her own voice. Time of Dark seems to be a prayer, asking God or an unknown spiritual force to “see me over the mountain.” It drives on, producing a conflicting sound that would fit well in a movie or montage.
This atmosphere is torn down by “Real Thing,” in which a soft, a cappela chorus is played against Garbus yelling over a strong bass riff. This song carries the most direct emotional force in the album–it hits hard. “I’m the real thing,” Merrill yells, highlighting her struggle with authenticity. How can she sing like one in poverty when she grew up in suburban Connecticut? “Real Thing” answers this question forcefully: this is who she is–her fusion of styles is a direct result of her life-experience.
“Look Around” slows it down, for a song for that one last friend left in the world in a weird, futuristic dystopia.
“Hey Life” returns with quick, sparse instrumentation. In it, Merrill addressing life as a person. “I can never seem to focus on the task at hand. Ten times a day…”, she sings. It’s a relevant statement today, when smart-phones and other electronic devices are constantly stealing our focus, and we subconsciously disengage from some of the most critical parts of our lives for novelties.
“Sink-O” is a bouncy, driving song about the earth swallowing people up. I’m going to leave it at that.
“Interlude: Why do We Dine on the Tots?” is an interlude in the form of a fable. Garbus’s values make a subtle appearance here–the fable is clearly about dysfunction in society–placing the whims and desires of people today ahead of future generations.
“Stop that Man” explores the problems of living in a bad part of town. It’s not the first time Garbus has explored living in the city before–her songs often take place in cities, and attempt to voice the concerns of the urban poor.
“Wait for a Minute” is the second single from Nikki Nack. It’s a beautiful, stripped down song about depression and the inevitable passing of time. “The pain is in the empty time–just twiddling my thumbs and hoping for the words to rhyme,” she sings at one point. There’s a feeling of authenticity in the song that permeates the album– a feeling that what you hear from Garbus is exactly how she feels and believes, and a feeling that she cares about those feelings and beliefs. There’s no irony here.
In “Left Behind,” Garbus sings about gentrification tearing people’s lives apart, over complex poly-rhythms. Like most of the songs on the album, the song feels tight and efficiently written–it makes it’s point, develops, and then leaves. It doesn’t waste time progressing for longer than it should–instead it leaves you wanting more.
“Rocking Chair” emulates a tribal sound, as Garbus sings a few simple lines with her self over and over, each successive time varying her voice and adding new layers and harmonies. It makes for a for great detour from the drum machines and synths used the rest of the album. If you ask me, it would make a good closer to the album.
The album ends with “Manchild,” in which Garbus lectures herself on sticking up for herself. The final words in “Manchild” are “I’ve got something to say,” which is a fitting way to end the album, because this is an album that really says things. Throughout the album, Garbus has filled the songs lyrics and meanings that reflect her own values and experiences. I can see why–in putting these values front-and-center in her music, she respects her influences in afrobeat and world music who used music as a tool to reveal problems and issues in society. Instead of selling the music out, she preserves the attitude of the music, by using it point out problems in American society today: technology, trading the prosperity our own prosperity today, gentrification, and body image, to name a few.
Print! Garbus’s authenticity and realness is sorely needed in a time when irony and emotional detachment is both the norm and the way to be cool. Musically, Nikki Nack further matures Tune-Yards’ sound with sick polyrhythms and a catchy electronics that at times verge on insanity, making for an infectiously interesting listen. Garbus’ voice is simultaneously authentic, powerful, convincing and beautiful, and, better yet, it has something to say.
(Warning: Water Foundtain, Real Thing, and Left Behind contain profanity.)