By Adam Theisen, Summer Senior Arts Editor
Published May 4, 2014
Is it possible for an experimental artist to make populist music? After all, this is an industry where the popular kids are put on the radio and the weird ones are separated into the blogosphere. Well, no one would argue that Merrill Garbus’s project Tune-Yards is weird and experimental, but a universal style of music pervades its third album, Nikki Nack. It’s not “pop” in the typical Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus sense, but it’s pop music in its most basic form: bright, exciting and meant to be enjoyed by everyone. Filled with percussive grooves, strong vocal performances, intelligent lyrics and ambitious, shining enthusiasm, Nikki Nack is more than just a pleasant curiosity, it’s a must-hear masterwork.
Building on her previous effort — Whokill, an album that found acclaim and success in the indie universe — Garbus’s latest similarly features schoolground chant vocals and looped, tribal sounding percussion, as well as plenty of electronic tricks that modify her voice and add a slightly abrasive undercurrent. Lead single “Water Fountain” has a hip-hop-style beat, a systematic crescendo to a great climax and is fuelled by the compelling strangeness of Garbus’s voice, which can be melded just like an instrument to fit whatever purpose its owner needs. On some songs her falsetto glides softly, while on others she’s stronger and blunter and on still others she sounds like an electronic Paul McCartney.
Nikki Nack is like a great English professor. It’s sophisticated and cool (or at least well-read), but it’s also inviting to newcomers and never pretentious. It doesn’t close itself off to those who aren’t well-versed in experimental indie music and it doesn’t look down on those who don’t necessarily “get it” upon first listen. Tune-Yards’s best tracks are built on percussion and chanting. In other words, it’s a more electronic version of the earliest and most universal kind of music there is. It might be hard to classify and it might sound unfamiliar on first listen, but it’s inclusive, happy and full of life. It’s almost a shame that it’s sometimes difficult to pay attention to the actual words Garbus is singing, because a look at the lyrics reveals that she’s also a passionately incisive poet, touching on race, class and gender relations over the course of the album.
A record that comes to mind while listening to Nikki Nack is The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’d be tempting to classify it as rule-breaking, but honestly, Tune-Yards crosses so many borders and tries so many new things that it even breaks down the idea that there are “rules” in music to begin with. Like The Beatles on Sgt. Pepper, which changed the game for pop music by presenting it in an entirely new style, Tune-Yards sees no boundaries in its art form, giving listeners timeless melodies and beats combined with a brand-new innovative sheen. It takes a lot of courage to try this, but Merrill Garbus backs up all her ambition with impeccable musicianship, great sequencing and a sharp understanding of how to construct a great song.
Nikki Nack is a defiant statement backed by visionary iconoclasm. Tune-Yards goes back to the purest possible roots of music while still taking advantage of all the 21st century technology at its disposal. At the center of all the impressive music and production is Garbus, who, without ever getting esoteric or insular, refuses to compromise her weirdness. Even the short interlude (called “Why Do We Dine on the Tots?”) in the middle of the album is memorable and hilarious because of all the goofy voices Garbus tries out as she tells a whimsical story.
Even when the lyrical content gets dark, which it tends to do on all but the brightest songs, it’s hard to notice because of the soaring, youthful energy that fills Nikki Nack. There’s not a single misstep on this album, because while being fiercely unique it also taps into everything that’s universal about music. Play Nikki Nack for someone from any state — hell, any country — and you’ll get the same reaction: feet tapping, heads nodding and, by the end, an unrestrained childlike smile.