by Caitlin Baldridge
Fellow Oakland-er Merrill Garbus is the musical convulsion tUnE-yArDs consisting of eclectic vocal spasms, wild lyrics, and complex instrumentation. She’s a songwriter, vocalist, ukulele player, and percussionist who has fused varying genres into her own craziness. The new album Nikki Nack hasn’t changed much from her previous albums Bird-Brains and w h o k i l l released in 2009 and 2011 respectively in artistic style, but the recording and instrumentation have certainly gotten more advanced and complex. It’s clear that Garbus is talented and she has a very distinct image of what type of music she wants to create, and doesn’t exactly care if it appeals to the norm. It’s not catchy or familiar, but the originality has a sort of charm. Perhaps the most remarkable quality of tUnE-yArDs is Garbus’ voice, which isn’t typically beautiful, but it’s bold, dominating, and unlike anyone else’s.
Nikki Nack is refreshing because not only is it vastly different from modern music, but each track on the album is its own. They’re of the same stylistic form, but they each tell a new story and have elements drawn from varying genres. The record begins with “Find a New Way” incorporating a new age jazz vocal line from Garbus accompanied by eclectic percussion, synths, and bass. Surprisingly it does have a groove to it despite the quirky instrumentation and vocal harmonies, and the chorus differing largely from the verses. “Rocking Chair” and “Water Fountain” can be described as Afro-Pop with the abstract, minimal percussion and vocal line. “Time of Dark” is one of the most accessible tracks on the record with a discernible catchy chorus and exciting bass lines. “Look Around” and “Manchild” are psychedelic and swaying. “Hey Life” is almost spoken-word with existential, introspective themes saying “hey life, why do you keep me around”. But perhaps the craziest of all tracks is the interlude “Why do we dine on the tots?” which tells a minute-long tale of a family discussing why they must eat children.
Quite frankly, Nikki Nack is insane. From a musical talent standpoint, the quality is high with Garbus’ vocals and creativity and the seemingly never-ending line of storytelling she has. From an enjoyment standpoint, the album doesn’t succeed. It’s highly confusing and inaccessible; we just don’t know what we’re supposed to draw from it. It’s all over the place making for a lack of discernible genre, and lack of catchiness makes it hard to listen to. I do think it’s worth your time just to see how avant-garde tUnE-yArDs is and what can be called music these days, but expect to be confused because Nikki Nack is neither here nor there.