Never one to do things by halves, the irrepressible Merrill Garbus has created in ‘nikki nack’ about as individualistic an album as you could hope to find, every facet of every track shot through with her utterly unique, and completely zany, musical identity. But, as they say, just because something is unique doesn’t mean it’s good, and armed with this truism it’s time to dive into the cartoon reality of tUnE yArDs’ latest creation…
From the minute her tUnE yArDs project first took shape on 2009’s ‘Bird-Brain’, with tunes recorded entirely using a dictaphone and GarageBand, there has always been something of the visionary, misunderstood or otherwise, about Garbus, a persona which was maintained on 2011’s ‘w h o k i l l’ despite a more conventional approach and the introduction of Nate Brenner on bass. With third album ‘nikki nack’, the tUnE yArDs star is still on the rise, and as always is following a distinctly different tangent to anyone else’s.
On a record where musical ideas butt up against each other like crazy paving slabs, and the only thread of continuity is that everything springs from the Roald-Dahl-gone-anarchist imagination of Garbus, it is perhaps inevitable that to anyone who isn’t Merrill Garbus there will be parts which don’t make sense. That’s not a great quality for music presumably intended to be heard by people who aren’t Merrill Garbus to have, and so in that respect ‘nikki nack’ in some ways has to be seen as a somewhat flawed record. ‘Sink-O’ rattles along with all the poise of a screaming baby on a twelve-hour flight, ‘Stop That Man’ simply lacks the spark which lights up the better tunes on the record, the pseudo-Afro-blues of ‘Rocking Chair’ completely misses the mark, and the less said about the spoken interlude ‘Why Do We Dine On The Tots?’ the better. There might be a message to it, but we’re too busy cringing at the ‘funny’ voices to care.
But these moments aside, there are some genuinely excellent elements to the album; ‘Water Fountain’, a quirky yet immediately accessible tune is crying out for a summer of festivals, with its irresistibly percussive playground feel and hook-filled vocals – fingers crossed it is kept away from camera and car adverts, where great indie songs all too often go to die. The same can be said of the insistent and ever-evolving ‘Real Thing’, which showcases Garbus’ vocal range and musical creativity without compromising on overall quality, but it’s the only other track which scores a perfect ten, sidestepping the full force of tUnE yArDs’ determinedly scatterbrain approach.
Garbus certainly has an ear for a fantastic chorus, but her tendency to couple these up with more challenging verses could be divisive; ‘Hey Life’ sports a beautifully uplifting chorus, but the strange vocal delivery in the verses touches on scat in a way more likely to furrow your brow than keep your arms in the air. Similarly, on ‘Left Behind’ a magical chorus sits entirely at odds to almost abrasive verses, and the same issues are present on ‘Time of Dark’. Meanwhile, album closer ‘Manchild’ inverts this formula as strong verses bursting with impetus are confounded by a bizarre chorus. After repeated spins and some concerted effort from the listener, these tracks do start to make sense, but the work involved in reaching this understanding certainly won’t be for everyone; stick with it, though, and you arrive at sunny pop songs with unprecedented depth and delicious complexity.
Elsewhere, tunes do not have such a black-and-white division between conventional and challenging, preferring to occupy the grey area in between. The lilting ‘Look Around’ with its syncopated vocals is compelling, while opening track ‘Find A New Way’ will leave the listener in no doubt as to the leftfield nature of the rest of the album, for better or for worse. ‘Wait For A Minute’, boasting the most straight-ahead drums on the record, overcomes a questionable synth to establish itself as an understated album highlight.
‘nikki nack’ is a remarkable achievement, in that what appears at first glance to be mere throwaway lightweight experimentation is actually an extremely rich release, chock-full of precisely that creativity that is so often bemoaned as missing from music today. But such unbridled creativity comes with the caveat that the listener must in turn truly invest themselves in the music, and a lot of potential fans will be lost after failing to get through a first listen which in all honesty can be almost impenetrable. So be careful what you wish for next time you despair at the derivative nature of the charts; the perfect tonic is called ‘nikki nack’, but it’s certainly no quick fix.
-Words - Joe Ponting
'Nikki Nack' is out now
Watch Water Fountain...