42:24 / 76:06 min • 4AD • May 5, 2014
John Preston reviews
Tune Yards – aka New England vocalist Merrill Garbus and partner in bass-playing crime Nate Brenner – have allowed some major pop producers, namely John Hill and Malay, access to their already established and almost aggressively individual sound. Concerns of a disaster in the making may ring out, with their first album unbelievably lo – fi and the second self- produced – how would makers of albeit alternative but identifiable R&B pop affect a truly eccentric and self-sufficient band’s identity? Well, not as you much as you may imagine or possibly fear. There are changes, of course, as one would expect, and also hope from any artist that has been producing music in excess of 5 years – but these are subtle and even on occasion welcome amendments made to the Tune-Yards manifesto.
2011’s Whokill was an astonishing force – it blew everyone and everything that stood in its path away, but left Merrill Garbus drained and creatively arid. Nikki Nack’s opening lyrics tell of Garbus’ frustrations and the encouragement given to her by a stranger based only on her casual, overheard singing.
You tried to tell me that I had a right to sing,
Just like a bird has to fly,
And I really wanted to believe him because he seemed,
Like a really nice guy,
But I trip on the truth when I walk that wire.
When you wear a mask, always sound like a liar,
I tried to tell him all the reasons that I had never to sing again,
And he replied ‘You’d better find a new way –
Garbus’ wide eyed, exclaiming vocals – certainly soulful and often astoundingly powerful – sound pretty much the same on ‘Find a New Way’ as they always did. The change then comes mainly from the songs themselves and Tune-Yards development as writers. Garbus has spoken about her love of sticky, ear-worm songs that attack the brain, and are embedded forever. One of the objectives she had for this album was to figure out how to write such hooks and incorporate them without compromise of creativity and individuality. Maybe this was the reason for recruiting the producers of, amongst others, Pink, Shakira, Alicia Keys and Christina Augularia. John Hill and Malay are music specialists who understand how to navigate an artist towards the potential of a great melody. Along with Brenner, the band have again self-written the entire record and this objective of creating catchiness has, on the whole, been met with many satisfying examples.
The first half on Nikki Nack is more convoluted stylistically than the second and also has a lower hit rate. ‘Water Fountain’, the album’s first single, squashes all of Tune Yards’ characteristics and tiks into one song. It’s a very tight squeeze; playground skipping rhymes, yelps and ‘yee- ha’s!’, clanging and clattering percussion, exhibitionist vocals and lyrics about a crumbling and under-funded neighbourhoods – and a video that references Peewee Herman’s Play House. Ostentatious, wacky and bejewelled, it’s not subtle and, after the initial and undeniable rush has worn off, it’s not enduring either. ‘Look Around’ and ‘Time of Dark’, both slower tracks, feel longer than their playing time and ‘Real Thing’, which starts off brilliantly with staccato thrown verses circa Writing’s on the Wall era Destiny’s Child, ends in a tangle of voices and sonic muddle.
‘Hey Life’ chronicles an existence led too fast accompanied by anxiety and a pressure to cram as much as possible into every waking second. Its drumming, synth prods and speed singing all add to the heightened feeling of panic with Merrill central to the ensuing chaos. It’s a minor track in some ways but one that is nonetheless thrilling and manages to avoid any cartoonish inclinations where this could have been an easy temptation. The strongest section of the album begins with ‘Stop that Man’ which introduces a trio of songs where evidence of growth in song-writing and an ability to apply a more contained but ultimately more rewarding approach is clearly apparent. One of the continued aims of Tune Yards has been to comment on social and left-leaning political issues with lyrics that are set against predominately upbeat and dense dance rhythms and beats that imply a celebratory mood. Casual racism, gentrification and sexual harassment are all central themes here and ‘Stop that Man’ questions racial assumptions based on media statistics and news reports and also personal experiences. The song succeeds mainly though by being part angular, glitchy electro clash experiment (it turns inexplicably and temporarily into ‘Blue Monday’/’Bobby O’ for 45 seconds mid song) and part glorious, sing along pop song. So if Garbus’ intention was to create a song serious in intention that you’ll also sing and dance along to, she has also again succeeded.
‘Left Behind’, and the down beat but not depressing, smoothly R&B ‘Wait for a Minute’ (probably the album’s best tune and performance) complete the trio, and these moments are some of the finest in Tune Yards discography to date. There is nothing that rivals the unruly, audacious and already ground breaking ‘Gangsta’ here, the Tune Yards of Nikki Nack are indeed more mannered but also more intricate with one beady eye placed on fine detail and songs that revel themselves more slowly and reward generously over time. Claims of culture appropriation, for they have been made, are surely overblown and unaccounted for and only on the multi harmonies of the lullaby-sounding ‘Rocking Chair’, short and a little too on the nose, does the intention grate. Other influences can also be heard, Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper, Missy Elliott and Timbaland, Santigold, Big Boi, MIA and Neneh Cherry in particular all register at certain points but never once could you mistake Tune Yards for anyone else. Nikki Nack may not shout its intentions as loudly as before but its power is found elsewhere, you’ll find yourself madly singing its merits – probably unaware and almost certainly with glee.