Before listening to “Nikki Nack,” Merrill Garbus’ third full-length album under tUnE-yArDs, I had listened very little to the music project before. I had them recommended to me, but for whatever reason neglected to give them too much time — maybe it was the junior-high-Myspace-esque capitalization techniques employed in the writing of their name. And after one listen to “Nikki Nack,” the music was a bit overwhelming. But after repeated listens and time to digest the cacophony of sounds seemingly thrown together at random, intricacy among the madness emerged. This is where the strength of “Nikki Nack” lies. If one feels like simply dancing or shouting to the music, it’s completely suited to those ends — but beneath patchwork of styles and madness, lyrical and musical depth emerge, and allow the madness to be contemplated in peace or while dancing to your heart’s desire.
On “Nikki Nack,” Garbus’ trusty ukulele — the center of many of her old tunes — is nowhere to be found. The first track, “Find A New Way,” devoid of ukulele, proclaims that Garbus is indeed trying to find a new way. Backed by a rollicking, rolling drum beat, occasional carnival synths and an unrelenting bass, Garbus whispers and shouts, “I tried to tell him all the reasons that I had to never sing again / And he replied ‘You better find a new way.’”
The lead single, “Water Fountain,” may be the catchiest current song out there with a harsh critique behind it. Her recent lessons in Haitian percussion are evident (as it is on most of the album’s tracks) — Garbus’ voice and the bass go hand in hand as laser sounds emerge over the banging of a triangle, while all colliding in the song’s climax in a frenzied heap of sound that demands one to turn up the volume. All of this goes on while Garbus sings, “Greasy man come and dig my well / Life without your water is a burning hell / Serve me up with your home-grown rice / Anything make me shit nice,” critiquing corporate greed that destroys the environment at any cost to make more profit.
“Real Thing” showcases the range of Garbus’ voice, and even with a lot going on, it is one of the barest tracks on the album. A soulful Garbus sings over a sultry beat before a looming fuzzy bass comes from nowhere and takes over — and she explodes. Like a preacher expounding wisdom to followers, she harshly chants over occasional “la la las,” critiquing capitalism, body image stereotypes and the objectification of Native Americans. Over all the declarations of hypocrisy, it’s the way that Garbus finishes the song that makes it a fantastic positive message. She sings gospel-like at the top of her lungs, “Ugly one be you, who you are / Ugly but you’re pretty already,” ending with a repeated chant of “I’m a real thing.”
Other songs, like “Wait for a Minute,” and “Rocking Chair,” showcase more minimalism for Garbus as her vocal range allows for a plethora of emotions to be explored. Though there are times when varying styles and the clashing of sounds is a bit too much on certain tracks, it is not enough to push this roller coaster of an album off the rails.
“Nikki Nack,” while initially overwhelming, proves to be worth multiple listens, and is fit to suit many different moods of listeners. The intricacy among the frenzied changes of pace rewards patient listeners who dare to sit through an apparently jumbled collage of sound more than once. All of its versatility certainly makes “Nikki Nack” one of the top albums of 2014 so far. Garbus sums up her listeners’ varied feelings as she sings, “Your music’s in your pocket / With the power you can even imagine.” “Nikki Nack” is an album that deserves to be listened to at full volume, and then away from the crowds in the silence of your bedroom at once — and taking the time to do that is certainly worth the effort.
Rating: 4 stars