Merrill Garbus is My Spirit Animal. I Love Nikki Nack
When I listen to a tUnE-yArDs record, I wait for the moment when my mouth drops open. Sometimes I’m alone, dancing at home, and other times I’m on the street, making faces at strangers. There’s always a sound pattern or a line that makes my eyes bug out and my mouth always drops open.
The first time was when I heard the first single, “Water Fountain.” I’ve been in a state of glorified stupor since it came out in mid March. Every time I listen to it in public, I have to consciously control my Ilana Glazer dance moves. (You know the ones, from Broad City.) “Water Fountain” sounds like how I imagine smashing my body into a wedding cake as tall as me would sound. It would be layered, flush, crooked, smeared, iced, messy and clever. The patterns of movement on the track – between thumping bass lines, bass drums and handclaps – flutter around in my brain. Garbus’ signature vocal chanting (this time the “Woo-HA!”) moves my tongue and teeth. I sing along. The synth plink that sounds like Nintendo’s original coin chime move my shoulders, wrists and neck. It is an unstoppable three minutes.
But listen again. Listen to the lines.
“He gave me a dollar/a blood soaked dollar/I cannot get the spot out but/it’s okay it still works in the store/Greasy man come and dig my well/life without your water is a burning hell/serve me up with your home-grown rice/anything make me shit nice.”
Merrill Garbus does what she does best: delivering politics in the disguise of basic poetry.
Then when I heard the first few seconds of the opening chime on track one, “Find A New Way”, my mouth dropped open again. It’s aggressively light electric keys, an echoed, staccato delivery of the chorus, a beat drop followed by another unnamable drum pattern. It’s here Garbus sets the tone for the record. She sticks to something that can only ever change – snare rim patterns, layers of her choral and yodel vocals and dropping the melody to scat lyrics. As soon as you get rhythmically comfortable it’s gone, only to return when you least expect it.
Merrill Garbus has been releasing music and changing colors since her debut as tUnE-yArDs in 2009, BiRd-BrAiNs. In 2011 Garbus delivered w h o k i l l, also on 4AD, an afrobeat pop crossover that tingled and twitched the senses of fans of free jazz, funk, hip hop, complicated looping techniques, hand percussion and multiple synthesizer personalities. w h o k i l l also made a splash of glue and confetti. Garbus’ music is a collage, a scatter, a Technicolor design. It’s a face painted, it’s homemade and it’s Do-It-Yourself. w h o k i l l is unlike anything you’ll ever hear and Nikki Nack is just continuing the pattern as it changes.
Nikki Nack is Merrill’s third full length as tUnE-yArDs for 4AD.
Just like w h o k i l l, it’s a polished new political party record. Forget (but not really) about the aforementioned “blood soaked dollars.” On “Real Thing” Merrill delivers, keeping it timely and radical between the choral la-la-la’s:
“They say I’m the real thing/oh no/I sound like the real thing/oh no/sing a real line like the real thing/makin’ them proud like the real thing/oh no/I come from the land of slaves/let’s go Redskins/let’s go Braves/you want the truth in tomes/dig out the dirt and sift out the bones.”
My eyes nearly bulged out of my head when I heard that one. “I come from the land of slaves/let’s go Redskins/let’s go Braves.” How impossible? Could she do it? She did it. Is it shocking? It’s something. It’s something to comment about regional and global issues in such an unassuming way.
tUnE-yArDs records are shocking everywhere you listen. The music is manic – switching gears and jerking you in directions you didn’t know existed. The messages of her tracks are huge, even though their concisely written and delivered. Hear it on album closer, “Manchild,” the chorus, “Don’t beat up on my body/don’t lean up on my body/don’t need no meat up on my body/I’ve got something to say” and verse, “little man child look at your pants/an accident happens each time we dance.” Merrill just delivered a perfect Keep Your Hands Off My Body anthem.
The other coated concept of her records, and their genius delivery, is through children. Children’s voices were featured throughout BiRd-BrAiNs as clips and interludes, children are the main characters in both videos for w h o k i l l’s “Bizness” and “My Country” and now the new video for “Water Fountain” is a sort of revival of Pee-wee’s Playhouse – only with more face painting, arts and crafts, pixelated cartoons and finger puppets.
In an interview with Mother Jones, Garbus discussed her draw towards children’s art and how its messages are, “very honest but really dark.” And here on Nikki Nack on track eight, an interlude, “Why Do We Dine On The Tots?” Garbus reads a children’s story – part Dr. Seuss, with whispered and magnified cartoon voices – its lesson about produce, food impulses and its price. It’s a track that you can skip, only at 1:29, but its lesson compliments the content and tone of the record.
What you must realize when listening to Nikki Nack is that normal behavior and music industry standards do not apply here. Merrill Garbus has always distanced herself from Western music. In college, Garbus studied music and vocal performance in Kenya by way of Smith College. And after w h o k i l l, she took Haitian drum lessons at home in Oakland, CA and spent two weeks in Haiti to “distort herself from the pressures of being in a band and image.”
“Hey life/I’m calling your name/but all I hear is an echo/unless your voice and mine sound the same/I don’t wanna run out/but I’m runnin’/runnin’/I don’t know where to go/but I can’t seem to go slow/and no/I don’t wanna run out/ so I’m runnin’, runnin’/hey hey hey hey life/why do you keep me around?” on “Hey Life.”
You can’t say “no” to Merrill. Her music is too distinct, too enthusiastic and too electrifying. Listen to her vocal performance on track twelve, “Rocking Chair”, and try to prove me wrong.
Garbus makes a statement in her poly-melodies, her compound chord progressions and the way she breaks down the fourth wall on “Time Of Dark”, “Oh little child/understand a single thing/your music’s in your pocket with the power you can’t even imagine it will bring” and she chants on the chorus, “there will never be a mountain I cannot climb.”
Her music is truly imaginative – showing it can be anything you want it to be in addition to what it already is.
The music on Nikki Nack is like taffy – it stretches and samples, it’s a vibrant (on “Sink-o”), hushed (on “Wait For A Minute”) and a fun house of ideas (on “Stop That Man”). You will see, smell, hear, taste and touch everything new after listening to this record. You will always win.
I’ve seen her twice on the w h o k i l l tour – once at Washington, DC’s Black Cat Main Stage and the other at DC’s best Big Room, the 930 Club. She is on tour right now and will be playing Philly’s Union Transfer on June 15th. Garbus is an incredible performer to see in action. I can’t recommend it enough.
There is no foreshadowing. Merrill Garbus is a sensational songwriter. She is brief and striking, poignant and animated. Nikki Nack is something new. You should try it.
Nikki Nack is streaming at The Guardian and is out now.