Review: ‘Nikki Nack,’ tUnE-yArDs

(Photo: Holly Andres/courtesy of the artist)

photo: Nikki Nack album“Find a New Way,” the title of the opening track of tUnE-yArDs’ third album “Nikki Nack,” effectively functions as the band’s new mantra, and kicks off the record with an inspired autobiographical statement.

Merrill Garbus, the vocalist and principal songwriter behind tUnE-yArDs, claims “Nikki Nack” was the result of “unlearning” her previous compositional techniques that allowed her free reign on grittily lo-fi debut “Bird Brains” and the antsy experimental pop of 2011’s “w h o k i l l.” After brushing up on the quaintly-titled manual “How to Write a Hit Song,” Garbus went on to create her most controlled music to date.

Of course, “controlled” by Garbus’ standards is still extraterrestrial by those of most of her contemporaries. Those who find the first two tUnE-yArDs albums abrasive will still need to take songs like “Water Fountain” and “Wait for a Minute” with a grain of salt: even with Garbus’ intentionally reborn songwriting approach, choice signature elements of her craft (thankfully) remain.

Placement and timbre of vocal tracks remain a vital crux of Garbus’ singularity. On aforementioned opener “Find a New Way,” those four words are repeated and interspersed among various drum beats to the point where they become a percussive element themselves. Tracks like “Sink-O,” “Rocking Chair,” and “Manchild” feature armies of layered, unfixed vocals that at this point can only be described as Garbusian.

Lyrically, Garbus is, and forever shall be, a tough nut to crack. Her lyrics sheets, intentionally or not, are characterized by dark humor, blending screwball comedy (“Sink-O,” the spoken word “Interlude: Why Must We Dine on the Tots?”) and self-deprecation (“Wait for a Minute”). “Real Thing” re-ups Garbus’ knack for ironic patriotism: the sarcastic boast “I come from the land of slaves / Let’s go Redskins, let’s go Braves!” places it right beside “My Country” off of “w h o k i l l” in terms of American disillusion.

Subtlety has never been Garbus’ strong suit, and “Nikki Nack” is, quite literally, her most immediate album to date. On nearly every track the chorus hits right away, wasting no time in grabbing listeners and yanking them in. Though Garbus forces the issue, she never does so to compensate for a lack of strong material; in fact, the melodies of “Water Fountain” and “Stop That Man,” which devolves into “Blue Monday” by its conclusion, are among her strongest to date. “Nikki Nack” ultimately requires little excavation for the casual listener compared to earlier tUnE-yArDs records, yet it continues to push the limitations of pop, albeit from a different angle.