Album Review: 'Nikki Nack'

May 6, 2014
Originally published on May 13, 2014 1:20 pm



Merrill Garbus topped critics' polls when her second album came out in 2011. She's the singer and multi-instrumentalist who records as tUnE-yArDs. After that release, she took time for a creative recharge. She studied Haitian drumming and incorporated its rhythms into the third tUnE-yArDs album. It's called "Nikki Nack." It's out today and reviewer Tom Moon thinks it's a knockout.


MERRILL GARBUS: (Singing) No water in the water fountain.

TOM MOON, BYLINE: We've all heard that cadence a zillion times, a classic rope-skipping playground chant. As sung by tUnE-yArDs leader, Merrill Garbus, it could be the flipside of some lost single from the Dixie Cups in the 1960s, except, that is, for the words.


GARBUS: (Singing) Gotcha. We're going to get the water from your house, your house. Nothing feels like dying like the drying of my skin and lawn. Why do we just sit here while they watch us wither til we're gone? I can't seem to feel it. I can't seem to feel it. I can't seem to feel. I'll kneel, I'll kneel, I'll kneel, the cold steel.

MOON: Such a concentrated blast of exuberance in the service of a song about urban decline. That kind of subversion is the tUnE-yArDs trademark. Here's a cheery comment on the hollowness of music industry celebrity.


GARBUS: (Singing) Giving up what you got, what you are you're simply not. Aren't tired of this game and all the emptiness of your faith...

MOON: Most electronic pop is defined by a certain orderliness. It's made on computers and it sounds that way. Everything is locked down tight with little variation. Not so with tUnE-yArDs. Check out where that tune goes right after the refrain.


GARBUS: (Singing) I'm the real thing. They say I'm the real thing. I sound like the real thing. Singing real loud like the real thing. Making 'em proud like the real thing. I come from the land of slaves. Let's go Redskins let's go Braves. You want the truth in tones, Dig this dirt and sift out the bones...

MOON: tUnE-yArDs might use the same tools as many other producers, but gets extremely different results. Basic funk beats are ever so slightly destabilized, a feeling that's magnified by the irreverent, wildly imaginative vocals.


GARBUS: (Singing) Today. I couldn't stand to be all alone. And sick of hearing my voice on the telephone.

MOON: Sometimes Merrill Garbus starts out with a conventional verse, but she can't leave it that way. Underneath the idyllic lead, she adds choppy, oddly syncopated harmonies.


MOON: Everything on this album feels loose, improvised, free. In the act of subverting rigid, computer-based production, tUnE-yArDs seems to have discovered a whole new exploratory lane, where sound mangling becomes a sport and the messy stuff that others would fix leads to a curiously riveting form of pop ecstasy.


SIEGEL: The latest from tUnE-yArDs is called "Nikki Nack." Our reviewer is Tom Moon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.