We're doing things a little bit different on Tracking this week. This column is where we get into the songs that really stand out to us, and for the last couple of weeks, those songs have mostly been on tUnE-yArDs' outstanding new album, Nikki Nack. In his glowing review of the album, our very own Peter Tabakis called Nikki Nack a "phenomenal follow-up to whokill [which] will only solidify the prior convictions of admirers and cynics alike", and an album that "pushes pop to the outermost limits."
These are our writers' favorite songs:
I generally tend to appreciate songs that are rhythmically driven by handclaps. Among many other reasons that are mostly juvenile, I appreciate them because they invisibly suggest that the song isn’t just listen-only. They’re an invitation to become an empirical (and fairly crucial) component to the whole in a way that bypasses the burden of memorizing lyrics. They’re fun (if you have rhythm), and they’re easy (if you have hands). They bring people together without asking too much of them.
But, “Water Fountain,” adds an interesting plot twist: The clapping is the most crucial component.
We should have seen this coming. tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus isn’t exactly an ambassador for uniformity. She probably doesn’t give a damn about your definition of comfortable, but that’s only because until just recently, there’s a chance she wasn’t even aware of her own.
The past work of tUnE-yArDs (specifically, 2011’s whokill) demonstrated this sentiment in myriad formats: an overt use of melodic contradiction, rhythmic collision and production asymmetry, to name three. But remarkably, Garbus effortlessly possesses the confidence necessary to present it all in a strangely likable package. whokill broke down the walls of traditional musical suppositions unapologetically, which almost automatically made it one of the most celebrated albums of 2011.
Her combustible delivery, however, was never malicious. It wasn’t even meant to be informative. The most incendiary element to tUnE-yArDs is its disarming contemplation, and whokill was that contemplation being narrated in a very unique voice.
On, “Water Fountain,” the leadoff single from Nikki Nack, it's fairly clear that Garbus has done some homework. Her three years between albums were clearly spent learning how to execute old tricks in new ways, and she’s more relatable as a result. You can sing along to “Water Fountain,” with qualified facility (despite the fact that, as is usually the case, it broaches some fairly serious subject matter). The verses are topically engaging, and the chorus is an outright battle cry. All of a sudden, this new version of Merrill Garbus has added conviction to the confidence.
And that same conviction is what transforms those claps into the nervous system of, “Water Fountain.” Fast-paced and borderline-erratic, they disseminate tribally rhythmic undertones with relentless generosity. They’re everywhere throughout the track, too, which means it’s never too late to join the party. [Austin Reed]
"Time of Dark"
Merrill Garbus has always been interested in not just who she is, but what she is. The physical is of equal consequence to the emotional in her music as tUnE-yArDs, a duality that keeps Garbus grounded, even when she’s poaching ideas from opposite corners of the world.
Even more so than whokill, Nikki Nack possesses an understanding of that balance. Garbus’ pursuit of personal reinvention between albums is joyfully apparent, but “Time of Dark” pushes the metaphor further than any other song on the album. It fades in like a war march, and though its entry shatters that illusion, Garbus’ voice remains a weapon. Even at her gentlest, it conveys a danger and power that amplifies her words and the missives within: “Hope I don’t choke on all the truth that they bring.”
As Garbus grows, so does her music: The tracery in the production, Nate Brenner’s sputtering bassline, the hook-laden but indecipherable backing vocals; everything adds up, even when logic dictates it shouldn’t. And like everything else on Nikki Nack, “Time of Dark” will meet you halfway if you let it, taking you on a journey over the mountain and through Garbus' wholly singular universe. [Brendan Frank]
I don’t know what it means exactly to be there for someone and I don’t know if it is always possible to have love unconditional for anyone, and I don’t think anyone knows. Listen with me to “Look Around;” listen to Merrill sing about the insane and impossible weirdo complexity of human relationships, the layered and fucked-up ways we exist for each other and for ourselves – “on the one hand there’s what sounds good, on the other there’s what’s true.”
After the power goes out she’s hoarding water for herself and someone else she says can lean on her always, but we don’t know if she’s found the same eternal support system in them. And then she admits “beware the empty promise all around me, all around you” – we’re all capable of fucking up royally in our responsibilities to the people we love and who love us, no matter what we say, no matter how we feel for no matter how long, sometimes to survive you have to burn your bridges. Life is crazy and people, oneself included, are self-serving, and the world around us is falling.
In so many ways Nikki Nack is about survival before anything else – survival of culture in the face of gentrification, survival of rape and gendered violence, survival of abject poverty, survival as we drain resources from our world and each other – and “Look Around” is about survival, about needing love in whatever manifestation for survival, about how tenuous and circumstantial even that connection is. Like the rest of the record – a sentiment almost too ugly to hear, rendered in music almost too pretty to stand, a juxtaposition that echoes real life. [Genevieve Oliver]
“Hey Life” isn’t the best song on Nikki Nack. That distinction goes to “Water Fountain” or “Time of Dark.” (I’ve been leaning more and more towards the latter.) But it is one of the most powerful, dealing with the broadest and most fundamental themes on the album – mortality. True to tUnE-yArDs’ form, though “Hey Life” is imbued with the darkest of human fears, it is also buoyed by overwhelming joy.
As the song’s title makes clear, Merrill Garbus is focused on the here and now. Existence as such (or maybe the Grim Reaper?) is her ever-silent interlocutor in a one-sided conversation. She seeks answers from an insentient universe (“Why do you keep me around?”). Unsurprisingly, the only response she gets are empty reverberations (“I am calling your name/ But all I hear is an echo/ Unless your voice and mine sound the same”).
Garbus notably invokes two teenybopper classics from the 1950s on “Hey Life”: Bill Haley & His Comet’s “Rock Around the Clock” and the Coasters’ “Yakety Yack.” The Haley tune underscores the march of time and its end. It also reminds us that the kids who once identified with its then-rebellious spirit are now in their twilight years (if not already free of this mortal coil). “Yakety Yack,” on the other hand, provides the setup for a sly twist. Too old to identify as a child (“twelve thousand, nine hundred, and forty-four days alive”), Garbus instead takes the role of “Yakety Yak”’s angry parent. When she uses the song’s iconic comeback – don’t talk back! – it is to admonish her own thoughts of death, as if they were surly teenagers.
“Hey Life” is about facing our worst foe in stride. Every new breath means we’re still the victor. And then we eventually lose. But the song’s first line – both a taunt and an acknowledgment of fact – is also its most significant: “Hey life, I am still here.” [Peter Tabakis]
"Wait For A Minute"
Merrill Garbus spends her time as tUnE-yArDs pushing her voice to its natural extremes and then beyond those limits with the assistance of technology. Her zig-zagging vocal affectations and contortions maneuver through the confines imposed by song structures or simply bust clean through them. On a purely sonic level, tUnE-yArDs records demand only vigilant listeners, because Garbus’s work is always an adventure composed exclusively of left turns, a lesson in what it means to deal with a genuine wild card, an exhaustingly stimulating exercise in the unpredictable.
So of course the most surprising trick Garbus has up her confetti-filled sleeves is the one where she slows things down and smooths them out. “Wait For A Minute,” the second track we heard from Nikki Nack after the more characteristically tUnE-yArDs “Water Fountain,” finds Garbus and producer Malay reshuffling her cut-up bleats and grating synth loops into a subtle, gorgeous little slice of accessible but still profoundly weird R&B.
tUnE-yArDs’ music has never made for an easy listen, and “Wait For A Minute” is no exception (it starts out as an expression of self-loathing and things don’t improve for its narrator, who concludes only that “the illness is in my mind”), but its challenges come in the form of hidden twists on basic elements and concerns of chart-friendly pop. It’s a song that does, indeed, wait for a minute – it waits patiently in wait for the listener attracted by the irresistible bass groove and sleepy hooks, and then Garbus springs her many traps. [Samuel Tolzmann]
By the time you reach “Left Behind” you’ve become profoundly aware of two bullet points regarding Nikki Nack: 1) Merrill Garbus still really cares about social issues, and 2) Merrill Garbus still really likes dancing.
The existence of these two normally dissociative elements is one of the reasons whokill was so likable in the first place. Garbus’ flair for afro-pop and R&B kept in perfect time with both her elevated awareness of societal shortcomings and her admission of the tribulations that led her to that awareness. It certainly didn’t hurt that she spoke with the vocabulary of a beat poet, either. Her melodic and rhythmic propensities were off-the-wall at best, but somehow, that only made the whole thing more endearing (and, thusly, more believable).
Nikki Nack is different from whokill in a hundred different ways, but the similarities they share are most apparent on “Left Behind."
The first things I noticed about “Left Behind” were incidentally the first things I noticed about whokill's “Gangsta:" ghostlike introductory drums that evolve into a driving signature, a fairly funky bass line that probably carries the bulk of the song’s weight, a multidimensional vocal structure that turns on a dime and, most notably, overtones outlining socioeconomic disparity.
The only real difference is in the level of production. Nikki Nack, by default, is a more stylistically complete album, which explains why “Left Behind” is a more stylistically complete track. If you are trying to explain to a friend the merits of an outstanding in-studio production team, play these two tracks back-to-back. On “Left Behind,” Garbus sounds like she’s singing to an auditorium, and on, “Gangsta,” she sounds like she’s singing to a sheet of drywall at point-blank range. This is the power of quality: It pays off across every square inch of Nikki Nack, and it qualifies it as one of the best albums of the year. [Austin Reed]
“I’ve got something to say,” proclaims Merrill Garbus on “Manchild,” Nikki Nack's final track; don’t we know it. As with any tUnE-yArDs track, she says a great deal, and she means all of it. In fact, here’s a songwriter who’s determined to plainly say what she means and nothing else, and for whom that communicative posture is emphatically political. Witness: “Not gonna say yes when what I really mean is no, / Not gonna say no unless you know I mean it. / I mean it: / Beat it! / Don’t beat up on my body.” No, ahem, beating around the, um, bush there.
“Manchild,” a fiery statement of independence that doubles as a bruising rejection, has a fairly minimal song construction – blurts of bass, ramshackle percussion, an ethereal keyboard line that crops up in the final third – that underscores the pointedly verbal nature of the song (both sonically and thematically), and puts all the focus on the curl in Garbus’s lip as she sneers mock-pitying put-downs like, “Oh, little manchild, look at your pants, / An accident happens each time we dance.” But that last word’s important, too; Garbus makes intellectually, politically, and subjectively challenging music but she also is keenly aware there’s no point in doing so if it falls on deaf ears. So “Manchild” is a lot of fun, too, a feminist update on the schoolyard chant that’s weirdly danceable and (borderline annoyingly) infectious. Garbus wants you to enjoy yourself – but she wants you to mean it. [Samuel Tolzmann]