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Parker Evans is an economics senior and Mustang News music columnist.
Good pop music has a certain quality that keeps us listening. An “American Idol” judge might call it “the X Factor,” but it goes much deeper than charisma or a simple melody; it’s earworminess and listenability. That power, that characteristic of music is something Merrill Garbus twists and manipulates to fit her needs throughout Nikki Nack.
Much like its superior predecessor, Whokill, the songs are built from the ground up around Afro-beats and live looping, though this time around, Garbus leans much more heavily on the former rather than the latter. Nikki Nack doubles down on the familiar Tune-Yards theme of childhood (see the videos for “My Country” and “Bizness”).
The combination can be arresting. Standout lead single “Water Fountain” kicks off with a tribal rhythm and handclaps, only to be accompanied by Garbus’ quadruple-tracked voice designed to replicate a playground chant complete. “Jump back, jump back, Daddy shot a bear,” she sings before unleashing a couple of fantastically wild whoops.
Of course, Garbus isn’t content with letting a pop song simply be a pop song, so we get to spin the big Wheel o’ Tune-Yards to see what kind of twist she chooses to employ.
Fortunately, most of the time Garbus chooses to reward listeners rather than punish them. Sometimes this comes in the form of her lyrics, which can be incredibly sharp when they aren’t willfully obtuse — or forming an indelibly weird spoken word interlude about cannibalism halfway through the album.
We’re treated to some of Garbus’ razor-sharp wit on “Real Thing,” an impressive deconstruction of American hypocrisy. “I come from the land of slaves / let’s go Redskins, let’s go Braves,” she sings with palpable sarcasm. Later, she delivers the knockout punch: “Don’t ever pay me / I look good in debt / Red, white and blue course through my veins / Binge and purge the USA.”
While writing Nikki Nack, Garbus studied Haitian drumming, and her interest in the subject is immediately apparent. The complicated polyrhythms tend to be quite danceable and play well with the youthful themes and tones. When she abandons them in favor of a more straightforward, comfortable drum machine on tracks such as “Wait For A Minute,” the contrast between youth and maturity (underscored by deliciously flimsy synths) is much more defined.
Much of the brightness (both aural and visual) synonymous with Tune-Yards is present, but Garbus isn’t afraid to explore darker themes and music. “Time of Dark” is rife with black imagery and color that double as a particularly effective environmental message. “I know you’re carrying me under a blanket of coal,” she repeats with equal parts frustration and sadness.
As lyrically interesting as Nikki Nack is, it isn’t uncommon for a song to be buried under a collection of sounds that function as a series of moving parts rather than harmony — for an album centered around youth, there’s certainly a lack of clear, simple melody. Sometimes Garbus’ unmistakable voice is able to power through (she’s at her best when she’s at full blast), but tracks such as “Look Around” and curiously weak opener “Find A New Way” are largely just spinning their wheels.
Ultimately, Nikki Nack benefits from Garbus’ newfound celebrity status in indie music circles, and irrespective of your opinion of her music, she is undeniably a powerfully original creative force. One day, she’ll release a masterpiece, but Nikki Nack is a solid holdover until then.