Fierce. Wild. Soulful. Sweet. Powerful. Childlike. Harsh. Chaotic. Passionate. The human voice is capable of binding so many internal qualities to a melody. An emotion properly carried through singing can cause a listener to connect to a musician on the level of personal experience. On the other hand, a vocalist who is perceived as insincere can cause a degree of repulsion for the audience. It is rather uncommon to find a vocalist who can embody so many characters and tones in their voice and remain convincing and engaging in all forms. Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs is one such vocalist. Her voice is an unshakeable force that seems to have consumed the voices of others and absorbed their character. tUnE-yArDs’ third record, Nikki Nack, marks another feat of unique innovation in the world of indie-pop, championed by the unmistakeable voice of Merrill Garbus.
Nikki Nack is a storytelling experience driven by loops and layers of powerful vocals and strong drumming. Each song seems like a total shift from the song that came before, but the unifying characteristics of Garbus’ voice and the loop-pedal style of percussion give the album a strong sense of identity. The building and distorting style of a song like “Water Fountain” is contrasted by the spacey sentimentality of “Look Around”, further offset by the abrupt and chaotic “Sink-O”. Moments and moods seem to wander in and out of the album, sometimes appearing only in one brief section of a song and then are never heard again, allowing each song on Nikki Nack to offer its own unique take on an overarching tone.
The sonic approach to Nikki Nack is one that differs immensely from tUnE-yArDs’ previous two albums, which inevitably means that there are some new aspects that excite me and others that have been left out that I miss. The vocals retain the great variability and passion found in the earlier albums, but they have adapted to meet the atmosphere of the new record. Nate Brenner’s bass work remains fat and enigmatic, for which I am a very happy listener. The rhythm layers have taken a more prominent role than on previous albums, and this time around the band went for a slightly more live sound in the percussion, rather than the exclusively looped tactics of W H O K I L L. The amount of electronics has increased considerably, with a greater reliance on synthesizers and vocal effects, though the vocal balance falls far over on the side of the unmodified voice. On the negative side of things, Merrill’s phenomenal ukulele playing is almost completely missing from the new album. Whether you feel that Nikki Nack is a stronger or weaker effort than the masterpiece that was W H O K I L L, tUnE-yArDs’ recent release is undeniably distinct from anything else I have heard from any indie band, and is well worth more than a few listens.
If you have some time, take a look at this video from their performance on KEXP. It contains several Nikki Nack songs played live, as well as a rather interesting interview.
tUnE-yArDs has triumphed once again by introducing their fans to something new while bringing back elements of the old. I will say that Nikki Nack is probably the easiest tUnE-yArDs album to listen to, since so much of the tooth-grinding tension from their earlier work has been cut away. This album is a must-hear, and I would be immensely surprised if it doesn’t crack my list of top five albums of 2014. Go listen to it. Now.