tUnE-yArDs Nikki Nack 4AD

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC - CHRIS JONES

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.

Down­load: Wa­ter Foun­tain, Find a New Way, Left Be­hind

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