tUnE-yArDs delivers its third gem with Nikki Nack

Merrill Garbus has lungs and she knows how to use them

May 6, 2014

Anyone who thought Merrill Garbus’ tUnE-yArDs was all about the novelties of her multiple vocal loops and borrowed African rhythms, and that those would wear thin after her 2011 breakthrough, was neglecting the facts that Whokill actually was her second strong album (following her 2009 debut with Bird-Brains), and, more importantly, that she writes songs that are unforgettable for plenty of reasons besides her unique instrumentation—and despite her ukulele. (She’s the only artist who’ll get a pass from me for using that dreaded mini-ax.) Plus, she has one helluva voice and a much-needed, Oakland-based but global feminist perspective.

“I’ve got something to say,” she bellows at one point on her third album Nikki Nack, and she certainly does, even if she’s distracted at times by contemplating her newfound stardom. Much better is the anger at first-vs.-third-world issues inspired by a visit to Haiti, and she also makes much better use of the rhythms that moved her there than her former tour mates in Arcade Fire. “Oh my god, I use my lungs!” she wails later on, and again, she ain’t kidding: Her powerhouse vocals and her indomitable personality both are veritable forces of nature, as evidenced by tunes such as “Water Fountain,” “Look Around,” “Hey Life,” and “Left Behind.”

The only misstep here is the story-song “Why Do We Dine on the Tots?,” which is based on a skit about Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” that she used to perform during her days as a puppeteer. It’s as dreadful a detour as “Mr. Tembo” from Damon Albarn’s recent and otherwise perfect Everyday Robots. But, like the uke, it’s a blight I’m willing to forgive, given how good is all the rest.

tUnE-yArDs, Nikki Nack (4AD)

Rating on the four-star scale: 3.5 stars.

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