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. Nikki Nack
completely eradicates this problem, featuring a rock solid set of songs that combine daring experimentation with pop-derived infectiousness.
Typically for Garbus, the music revolves around incessant grooves, lively drumbeats pulled straight out of the African tradition, and a kaleidoscope of colorful sounds that shift between whirring synths and vocal loops to often dazzling effect. Her disregard for pop conventions is commendable as the songs glimmer with enough whimsy and oddity to pack a punch without being too outrageous or complex. The decision to collaborate with Nate Brenner to a larger extent brings out a more electronica-laden dimension to some tracks, while the contributions from M.I.A.'s collaborator John Hill and Frank Ocean's associate Malay smooth over the rough edges. What remains unchanged is the power of Garbus' distinct vocals that run the gamut from wild squawking to wondrous crooning, yet never cease to be intensely soulful. The vocalist integrates rootsy singing with a uniquely modern approach as she oftentimes manipulates and multitracks her voice. In consequence, her performance is at once exuberant and playful.
The collection of songs Garbus composed together with Brenner is immensely tuneful. Every track is intricately crafted and delivered with admirable attention to detail, which lends the record its great replay value. Lead single 'Water Fountain,' based on a schoolyard chant and Haitian drumming, superbly measures the intensity, building up to the swirling wave of discordant noise. 'Sink-O' may seem really poppy on the surface, but the tribal live percussion and off-kilter synths pop up to make this dance jam brazenly dissonant. Meanwhile, 'Stop That Man' is elegant and wobbly until its perpetually shape-shifting bridge makes its presence felt. The number's an excellent showcase of how ingeniously written this record is. Even though Garbus and Brenner mostly work within the confines of linear song structure, they are able to turn every track into a thrilling ride fueled by eccentric ideas. 'Left Behind' may allude to the radio hits of the singer's childhood, yet its dense hi-hat drumbeats and the phrase “holiday, holiday, let's go crazy” chanted with punk-echoing ferocity transform it into a futuristic party banger. While more conventional slow burners like 'Look Around' and 'Wait For A Minute' pale in comparison with wildly inventive cuts, they still finely eclipse a more introspective and thoughtful side of Merrill's personality.
The lyrics, which oscillate between personal and political, are another reason why Nikki Nack
is such a resounding triumph. Opener 'Find A New Way' addresses the artist's struggle to stay productive in the face of self-doubt and a songwriting block. 'Hey Life' is a high-spirited anthem about remaining motivated despite numerous obstacles. 'Real Thing,' which swiftly blends swing and rap with tribal beats, serves as a biting satire on fame and celebrity culture in which Garbus doesn't even save herself from a trenchant critique. “Perched atop my drumming throne,” she sings before sarcastically admitting “Glory, glory, it's good to be me!” These bitter, at times self-deprecating musings interestingly stand in stark contrast with the music. Sonically, Nikki Nack
is a joyous record which sees Garbus bursting at the seams with restless energy and tremendous creativity. She's the real thing without any hint of sarcasm, and her new full-length serves as a perfect antidote for countless pop albums that are too safe or predictable to leave a lasting impression.