tUnE-yArDs Nikki Nack 4AD
Merrill Garbus begins her third album by relating an imagined conversation with a stranger: “I tried to tell him all the reasons that I had to never sing again. He replied: ‘You’d better find a new way’.” Things are indeed different now.
BiRd-BrAiNs, Garbus’s debut album, was recorded entirely on a dictaphone and grafted together with cheap software. It’s strange and wonderful, an accidental masterpiece of home recording that sparkled with joy. Its successor, who kill, added clattering hip-hop beats and the greater sonic possibilities that a real studio can provide, and managed to top the prestigious Pazz and Jop critics’ poll for 2011.
Now, after an extended break, Nikki Nack is the first tUnE-yArDs album to be recorded with external producers: John Hill and Malay, whose previous credits include Rihanna, Shakira and Alicia Keys. Nikki Nack is the slickest tUnE-yArDs record yet, though that’s very much a relative concept – it’s every inch as nutty as its predecessors.
As always, Garbus’s music defies easy categorisation. She gleefully combines west African rhythms, schoolyard chants, dub basslines and unusual instruments, and infuses them all with her ineffable personality.
That arresting yelp has always been a key part of the tUnE-yArDs sound, and so it remains, but part of the “new way” is more emphasis on actual singing. Traditional notions of songwriting and arrangement remain rare, and thank goodness for that. But Hey Life (key lyric: “I can never seem to focus on the task at hand”) boasts a big, bold chorus, while Time of Dark sees her really stretch out in ways we haven’t heard before. The spare, hollered Rocking Chair is a return to primitivism that comes across like an old spiritual.
Garbus has already negotiated the difficult second album and now, with big-time producers on board and a “new way” in mind, a potentially awkward third, without losing any sense of her own, inimitable sound. It’s quite a feat, and the result is another singular, exciting record. tune-yards.com
Download: Water Fountain, Find a New Way, Left Behind