Tune-Yards – ‘Nikki Nack’

Merrill Garbus' restless third record is chaotic, eclectic and unique

While ‘Nikki Nack’ contains a dizzying level of detail, its strength is the bright and brash sense of adventure underpinning it all. Merrill Garbus’ complicated but catchy style of songwriting dates back to her 2009 debut, ‘Bird-Brains’, where she used a ukulele and some clunky beats to mash together strands of Tanzanian folk, show tunes and hip-hop. Two albums later and the New Englander’s band are trying harder than ever to squirm free of convention.

With only Nate Brenner’s burbling basslines for an anchor, ‘Nikki Nack’ stampedes through complex arrangements and chaotic rhythms that are shaped, in places, by the input of producers Malay (Alicia Keys, Frank Ocean) and John Hill (Santigold, MIA). It’s easy to see why outside assistance was called for, given the album’s difficult balancing act: it pairs non-western musical traditions with melodies fit for a playground, then adds layers of fizzing electronics and rapid-fire wordplay.

Whenever those elements fall seamlessly into place, as on the opening four songs, the resulting pop sophistication is easily Tune-Yards’ finest work. Garbus commands such a rousing energy, particularly on the tribal ‘Time Of Dark’ and the campfire feel of ‘Rocking Chair’, that it makes you want to experience those moments first-hand.

“Listen to the words I say!/Sound like a floral bouquet!/A lyrical round-and-roundandroundandround!” she wails on ‘Water Fountain’, the first of several instances where she articulates an explosive urgency to express herself.

Beneath the restless song structures, ‘Nikki Nack’’s abstract and often improvised feel makes it difficult to tell whether some of these tracks are built on solid foundations. That’s most evident two-thirds of the way in, during the overwhelming jumble of ‘Sink-O’ and the spoken interlude of ‘Why Do We Dine On The Tots?’.

In the case of the latter, including a poem from your previous job as a puppeteer might suggest a lack of ideas – were it any other artist. But with Garbus, that sort of playful imagination has been Tune-Yards’ consistent strength. There’s no better illustration of ‘Nikki Nack’’s eclecticism: the songs splatter unpredictably with little concern for cohesion, forming a whole that is emphatically unique.

Cian Traynor

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