Music Reviews
Nikki Nack

tUnE-yArDs Nikki Nack

(4AD) Rating - 8/10

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. With that line, the drum rhythm into a cacophonous, densely layered bit of psychedelia. Nikki Nack’s opener, Find A New Way, by contrast, begins with a distinctly non-western drum rhythm and suggests in a somewhat cryptic narrative that Garbus will take her socially-conscious lyrics to a much more global level. She does exactly that.

These two elements—Garbus’ lyrics and the syncopated Haitian rhythms—make Nikki Nack one of the most arresting protest albums in recent memory. Garbus has fashioned herself as a voice of the underprivileged before, but she has taken that stance to far more ambitious levels this time around. Water Fountain addresses the scarcity and inaccessibility of the world’s most precious resource; Interlude: Why Do We Done on the Tots? is a hilarious skit in which disparaging vegetarianism is compared to cannibalism; the closing song, Manchild, addresses rape and turns the oft-cited “men can’t help it” argument into a comical depiction of premature ejaculation. Real Thing, the best song about the perils of fame in quite some time, finds a way to protest some of America’s invisible racism when Garbus yowls “I come from the land of slaves/let’s go Redskins let’s go Braves”. The shock suggests that, although Garbus may not be the “real thing”—that is, a member of the communities for whom she speaks—she is more interested in calling attention to distinctly American forms of racism and ignorance, allowing the complexity of the rhythms and harmonies assuage any doubts of “authenticity” or criticisms regarding appropriation.

Beyond the provocative and urgent lyrical matter, Nikki Nack beams with musically arresting moments. Lead single Water Fountain plays like a more upbeat, Nenah Cherry-esque song before exploding during two-thirds. Vocal tracks stack on top of another, Nate Brenner’s funky bassline pounds in the background and plays on our rhythmic expectations by coming in late or holding over past a verse’s end, and the percussive rhythms continue to pound away. Left Behind’s chorus almost seems to come out of a pop song. Rocking Chair consists solely of Garbus singing, often in her upper register, to a minimal percussive beat before a violin teased in a prelude that lasts all of a few seconds at the beginning of the track (a technique used fairly regularly on the album) rejoins. The track sounds like an old folk ballad, but is less Americana than immigrant hymn. These moments are absolutely crucial, as they emphasize that tUnE-yArDs is constantly pushing forward despite, or even because of pop concession. Indeed, despite the polyrhythmic sensibilities and multi-tracking, almost all of these songs are in 4/4 time, anchored by a syncopated but anticipatable drum beat. 

It’s of no coincidence, then, that the aforementioned bridge in Water Fountain is the album’s loudest moment, accompanied by the lyrics “listen to the words I say!” – a daring request for someone who just decried the so-called “First World” for watching the less privileged die of thirst with a line as eloquent and powerful as “nothing feels like dying like the drying of my skin and lawn.” In the same song, Garbus indicts capitalism and blood money by referencing Macbeth (“He gave me a dollar/A blood soaked dollar/I cannot get the spot out but/it’s okay it still works in the store”).

Throughout the album, Garbus uses asymmetrical phrasing, as in the aforementioned, “I cannot get the spot out but/it’s okay it still works in the store,” and, in Hey Life, following the "But I can't seem to go slow" with a quick " oh" to drive songs and choruses forward, emphasize syncopated rhythms, and create hemiolas. At the same time, choruses often consist merely of repeating a few lines, as on Left Behind’s “Been left behind/been, been, been” or the semi-call-and-response in Time of Dark, and they are often delivered as chants, if not outright sing-alongs. Put these together, and it makes for a turn toward pop without compromising the musical inventiveness that won so many over on w h o k i l l. In Wait For A Minute, Garbus proclaims “Wait for a minute/I’ll, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll/” several times before, in the final bar before the next verse, sneaking an extra “I’ll” to precede “Wait for a minute.” It’s a small detail, but it’s one of the many rhythmic thrills the album provides.

Above all, though, Nikki Nack is a thrilling musical assault. Brenner provides a much needed anchor on most songs, making them less cacophonous than dense, key to their effectiveness. Hey Life’s tongue-twisting chorus is delivered with just percussion behind it, but maintains the momentum the verses create. Sink-o features perhaps the best work in a tUnE-yArDs song to date, and along with the swung-sixteenth notes in the background and rapid-fire vocals on the chorus, make for the most energetic song on the album. Late highlight Left Behind looks like it will surely be memorable for Garbus’ matter-of-fact vocal delivery, only to feature the album’s best bass work. Only a few songs, such as the comparatively unexciting Look Around may lag a bit by comparison, as do Stop That Man and Wait For A Minute, whose pop conceits lack the oomph to return the album to its visceral highs after Interlude. On the whole, though, this is the strongest tUnE-yArDs album to date, more ambitious musically, more urgent and eloquent lyrically, and yet somehow more danceable all the same. Sure, there aren’t quite the visceral heights that the best tracks on w h o k i l l provided, but you will not be thinking that during Nikki Nack’s best moments. Listen to the words she says, let them sink into your head.