tUnE-yArDs ‘Nikki Nack’ (4AD) 5th May 2014
Long before we even reach the unsubtle cannibalism skit of ‘Why Do We Dine On Tots?’, we’re under no illusion that tUnE-yArDs‘ Merrill Garbus is suggesting America eats its young. Devouring, enervating and draining its younger generation of opportunity and security, America is hardly alone in declaring an unofficial war on its own – unless you’re privileged or lucky enough to be born into the upper and middle classes.
Going native with a polygenesis flair, Merrill adopts the protestations not only of the disfranchised of the US but Africa and Haiti too. An attachment, a curiosity if you like, for the humble life, toil and ritual of that crisis-inflicted island, Haiti informs not just some of the themes lyrically but also musically, adding another layer to the already voracious spirited soundtrack. Merrill not only spent some weeks, in self-imposed exile, there but also studied the countries syncopated hypnotising drumming with a Haitian dance and performance group back in Oakland, where she both lives and recorded this particular album.
A hyperactive sound-clash, an electric kool-aid luminous flavour of bubblegum pop, Nikki Nack is once again fuelled by a larger than life version of African rhythms and sounds, with Merrill digging deeper than ever to pull out something fresh. That vocal has gone even further in embracing that continents soul, swooning in almost creole lullaby (‘Look Around’) and gospel Soweto township (‘Find A New Way’) tones throughout. A definite melodious, infectious and dare say commercial bent makes this album a lot more accessible than its much acclaimed w h o k i l l predecessor; a result of handing over some of the material to the production talent of Malay (Big Boi, Alicia Keys and Frank Ocean) and John Hill (M.I.A and Rihanna). Both producers indelible influence has seeped in, with the album taking a distinct R&B turn down a very unconventional highway and giving a sweetly, soulful urban gleam to the marvellous songs ‘Stop The Man’ and ‘Wait For A Minute’.
Merge this with spritely, sparkly Baroque reggae, Pee-Wees Playhouse, Buffalo Girls, Laurie Anderson, ESG, Brain Eno & David Byrne’s ‘Regiment’ from My Life In The Bush of Ghosts (‘Manchild’) and Kellis and you are half way to capturing the brilliance of Merrill’s nuanced web of influences. All of which seem less chaotic than before; the clattering beats, bit crusher and speed shift effects no matter how heavy, no longer competing with each other for attention. And though it may not quite have the same impact as that last remarkable LP, it is a far more subtle, polished but, actually, better record; one that just keeps giving.