Wednesday, May 7, 2014

tUnE-yArDs - Nikki Nack Review

Merrill Garbus, creator and perpetuator of tUnE-yArDs, is one odd character. Her dazzling demeanor composed of candid expressions, blotched face paint jobs, and colorful characteristics wrap the singer/songwriter into a world all her own, untouched and unfettered by realistic constraints brought on by societal standards. You’ve heard ever so outspokenly that ‘hipsters,’ despite others’ utter lack of consistent stereotyping about them, follow one distinct rule; to be yourself regardless of what the conformists of modern society would tell you. Garbus attains this satisfaction to a tee. The liberating notion she currently employs stretches beyond that of her natural looks and smeared facial paint. Her 2011 LP w h o k i l l allowed many listeners a first-look glimpse into the world of a woman freed from anything and everything, making elaborate Indie bubble-gum Pop simply for her own enjoyment, thus bringing upon a new sound to the genre as a whole. Her follow-up Nikki Nack, while not evolving or swaying these sounds, produces a whole new set of enjoyable tunes, seemingly plucked from fairy-tale fantasies gone wrong, ripe with a smattering of influences to construct the mind of an artist released from the world’s monogamous ways. 

The production value, in much the same way of Son Lux’s recent LP Lanterns, mashes a kaleidoscope of sounds, segments, instruments and breakdowns but, while the former attempts to find perfection in the combinations, tUnE-yArDs creates an oddball blender of elegance and ugliness, tossed together in much the same frequency with one another. Much of that ugliness however, derives from her voice, and the magnificently ranged alterations she makes of it. In her interview with St.Vincent through Noisey she was noted as saying “that moment when making music when maybe the first audience of people listening say ‘eughhhh,’ I hate this. I’m not afraid to do that because it still means it’s furthering music in general.” And it’s truthfully this honest interpretation of her splotchy voice that makes it ever more appealing, fluctuating from quiet lullabies on songs like Time Of Dark to hollering screeches reminiscent of African hymns on Rocking Chair. The best use of her voice however doesn’t come herself, but the electronic modifications she makes to it, on Look Around, the album’s strongest track. Where her initial chorus starts out candidly enough, gracefully crooning “there will be, always something you can lean your weight in to. There will be always something you can rely on,” the track begins to slowly morph into a human-gone-robot, with distortions layering atop her hook, adding to the climatic moments of pure mechanical bliss, only contrasting with her humanoid, living, breathing vocal harmonies during the verses.

One of Garbus’ unique styling’s done effectively is through her use of storytelling, washing simplistic lyrics over dense subject matters. While many of the subject’s touched upon on Nikki Nack aren’t diverse or revolutionary, they provide a different context or sound to accompany the message. Take Real Thing, Sink-O, & Left Behind, all dealing with Native American expulsion from the United States they once called home and they lack of voice they now have over said land. It seems as if, with these strong critics, that Garbus herself may have some Native American ancestry in her. However, if she doesn’t lines like “If I went up to your door you wouldn’t let me in, so don’t say you don’t judge by the color of skin” come off as entirely pretentious. Other topics include relationship issues with a lost man crush whose presence in Garbus’ mind still an ever-lingering problem she attempts to overcome with pop music. And finally there’s a duo of songs that deal with acceptance of one’s beauty, or lack there of, and potential self-concern over one’s weight. Wait For A Minute beautifully exemplifies this dilemma many females face every day, seeing themselves in the mirror as inferior to others and society in general.

Finally, while construction of the overall thematic feeling of the album is loose and disjointed, the opener and closer successfully sum up Nikki Nack’s main message; allowing Garbus to find her voice, her place in society, and express herself as she deems fit. As mentioned intro, Find A New Way, and outro, Manchild, echo opposing sentiments as the events of the album evolve through Garbus’ acceptance of herself. We see in the former our lead quietly whisper, “I only speak when I’m feeling sad and lonely, but what I speak doesn’t have to do with being sad and lonely” as feelings of desperation resonant over her thoughts about her singing skills and voiced opinions in general. Our celebratory finale however sees Garbus’ hollering with ferocity “I’ve got something to say,” showing her change that she foretold in the intro, “When I see you changing, it makes me think that I could change too,” coming full circle.

tUnE-yArDs’ music seems to succeed through sound rather than substance. Those listening will gather gratification out of the feelings of elation, the catchy hooks and segments, and the vocal alterations of Garbus’ free-forming voice. The individuality and creativity Garbus exposes becomes secondary, while the lyrical content and depth become tertiary. I wouldn’t argue against that assignment either, because, while it may be the case that Garbus’ messages are true and meaningful, they’ve become masked over by constant grandiose, pop-influenced music meant for easy consumption. While in many cases the childish and playful tones used throughout would provide a nice contrast to the depressing messages lingering underneath, the over-abundance of said light-heartedness only dilute the meaning intended, resorting to patient moments of waiting for Garbus’ next catchy vocal harmonization or musical breakdown. It’s telling too, because, as much as I enjoy Nikki Nack, nothing resonates with me further than feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction, despite Garbus’ potential aim at providing an impactful listen on the intellectual level, rife with political commentary and social issues. This seems to be the case with all of tUnE-yArDs’ albums, easy listens that reach out for appreciation at the emotional level, only to fail, leaving us with a luscious taste in our mouths, like watermelon-flavored bubblegum; tasty and fun, but only leaves us wishing for the full-course meal.


  1. "It seems as if, with these strong critics, that Garbus herself may have some Native American ancestry in her. However, if she doesn’t lines like 'If I went up to your door you wouldn’t let me in, so don’t say you don’t judge by the color of skin' come off as entirely pretentious."

    The color of her skin is pretty obvious--even if she did have "Native American" blood in her veins-- she's white. The obvious conclusion we can make then, is that this song isn't written from her first-person perspective, but that she's putting herself in someone else's shoes... Pretentious? Hell no. Was it pretentious for her to sing that "policemen shot her baby..." on her previous album? Hell no. I give this review a 7/10.

  2. You are correct and make a good point. Wrote this a few years ago. Pretty clear now that she's writing from a different perspective.