May 29, 2018
Nikki Nack, New Album From tUnE-yArDs, Will Appropriate Your Culture So Good
This is a review of Nikki Nack, the new tUnE-yArDs album, in two parts. Part I is a review of the album. Part II is an angry denunciation of the Cultural Appropriation Police generally, and this one review of Nikki Nack specifically, because holy shit do these people even listen to themselves, with their nonsense?
Pretty much everyone except Chuck Klostermann loved 2011’s w h o k i l l, the second album from tUnE-yArDs, aka singer/mistress of rhythm & ukelele Merrill Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner, who doesn’t get enough credit. And pretty much everyone except Chuck Klostermann was right — w h o k i l l was great, joyous, intimate, funny, beautiful, danceable, disconcerting, weird, assertive, and best of all, different without being inaccessible or fussy.
I’ve been waiting for the follow-up ever since, and Nikki Nack is it. And it’s very good. Maybe great. But definitely very good.
Yes, I’m a little disappointed. But that’s mostly a function of my extremely high opinion of w h o k i l l. It was always going to be hard to top, for example, this:
Oh baby. So you can decide whether this, off the new record, stacks up:
Of course you are free to decide that of course it stacks up, dummy, it’s awesome! No argument here, but this reviewer feels that overall Nikki Nack is slightly lacking in some of the elements that made w h o k i l l such a delight.
For one, the new record isn’t as genre-defying. While I still struggle to liken w h o k i l l to anything before or since, Nikki sometimes reminds me of MIA, Dirty Projectors, Outkast (“Real Thing”), New Order (you’ll know it when you hear it), Yeasayer, and Passion Pit.
For another, I sometimes missed the simpler song constructions of w h o k i l l. The new album is a little cluttered and a little overproduced in places. It does that thing that’s popular now where you take a lo-fi tin-can bit of melodic doggerel and then you elaborate it with some piercing crystalline synthesizer and perfect digital polyrhythms, and you’re hoping people will be like “wow, listen to that contrast, isn’t that something?” And sure, w h o k i l l did this to some extent, but instead of synthesizers and digital drums it was all (or mostly) just looped vocals, percussion, and ukelele, and it was done in a way that reflected the freewheeling fun that Garbus must have been having after finally getting free reign in a big-time recording studio. This time around, it sometimes comes off like “This is kind of our thing, so we will do it here.”
At the same time, there are a few things Nikki Nack does better than the last album. It puts Nate Brenner’s bass more to the front, to great effect. Write-ups of the band often treat Merrill Garbus as sole proprietor, with Brenner as a sort of store clerk, but on Nikki you’d have to plug your ears to miss how essential his clean, logical, precise bass is to anchoring Garbus’s exuberant beats. It also makes great use of 8-bit video game sounds (I was really hoping that this was going to be a more prominent musical trend after I heard Beck’s Gameboy Variations EP of remixes — this one of “Girl” gets positively transcendent if you give it a chance). Lyrically, Nikki is more focused than w h o k i l l, and less reliant on abstractions that sound nice but may not mean anything. When a song is “about” something (like self-image, historical guilt, or romantic love) it’s obvious without being obnoxious. Which brings us conveniently to
Did you know that tUnE-yArDs’s Merrill Garbus went to Haiti before she made this album? Do you have a problem with that? This lady does.
Regarding her conversations with others who questioned why she was traveling to Haiti, Garbus herself writes that she went to “situate myself in a non-western musical tradition.” Then, indicates that her listener was shocked by writing, simply, the word “Pause.” Too bad she gives herself the credit for innovation in the silence that ensues, instead of considering it’s her audience that is skeptical of such open cultural tourism.
That is how she ends her review. “Pause.” What does it mean, in this context? What does it add to the article, besides a convenient last line? I would ordinarily not go out of my way to deduct style points from some stranger’s inferior review, but the author invites it by doing the same to Garbus’s “flawed lyrical flubs” as she redundantly describes them, her “pseudo-tribalism,” and the aforementioned “cultural tourism.”
See, the songs on Nikki Nack are about things. Sometimes, those things are questions that any self- and socially-aware person asks themselves, like “what is up with our bloody national history and fucked up sexual culture?” These songs are not treatises on the origins and remedies of injustice, or political manifestoes. They’re songs. They’re one Merrill Garbus’s thoughts on things, rhymed and set to music that Merrill Garbus likes.
A line goes, “We said we wouldn’t let them take our soil,” which feels more than a little rich from a white woman raised in New England.
How dare she, right? How dare she empathize with dispossessed people, in song! She’s a white, from New England!
Please. Merrill Garbus went to Haiti, made friends, learned music, came back and recorded a very good to great album. In what hypoallergenic hell of perpetual offense-taking is this a bad thing? It’s fine and good and healthy to speak out against injustice, disrespect, and ignorance. It’s healthy for all of us to deal honestly with race, class, and privilege. What’s not healthy is this game of Whack-A-Mole that some people like to play with all of history’s grievances, except half of the “moles” are just well-meaning people who substantially agree with you. It’s not productive. Nobody benefits. It turns allies into enemies and distracts from real problems, like how people murder each other all the time, and how we’re rendering the earth uninhabitable.
Convenient last line.
Favorite tracks: “Water Fountain,” “Real Thing,” “Wait for a Minute,” “Time of Dark,” “Sink-O”