Album Review: 'Nikki Nack'

May 6, 2014
Originally published on May 13, 2014 2:20 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Merrill Garbus topped critics' polls when her second album came out in 2011. She's the singer and multi-instrumentalist who records as tUnE-yArDs. After that release, she took time for a creative recharge. She studied Haitian drumming and incorporated its rhythms into the third tUnE-yArDs album. It's called "Nikki Nack." It's out today and reviewer Tom Moon thinks it's a knockout.

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TOM MOON, BYLINE: We've all heard that cadence a zillion times, a classic rope-skipping playground chant. As sung by tUnE-yArDs leader, Merrill Garbus, it could be the flipside of some lost single from the Dixie Cups in the 1960s, except, that is, for the words.

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MOON: Such a concentrated blast of exuberance in the service of a song about urban decline. That kind of subversion is the tUnE-yArDs trademark. Here's a cheery comment on the hollowness of music industry celebrity.

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MOON: Most electronic pop is defined by a certain orderliness. It's made on computers and it sounds that way. Everything is locked down tight with little variation. Not so with tUnE-yArDs. Check out where that tune goes right after the refrain.

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MOON: tUnE-yArDs might use the same tools as many other producers, but gets extremely different results. Basic funk beats are ever so slightly destabilized, a feeling that's magnified by the irreverent, wildly imaginative vocals.

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MOON: Sometimes Merrill Garbus starts out with a conventional verse, but she can't leave it that way. Underneath the idyllic lead, she adds choppy, oddly syncopated harmonies.

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MOON: Everything on this album feels loose, improvised, free. In the act of subverting rigid, computer-based production, tUnE-yArDs seems to have discovered a whole new exploratory lane, where sound mangling becomes a sport and the messy stuff that others would fix leads to a curiously riveting form of pop ecstasy.

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SIEGEL: The latest from tUnE-yArDs is called "Nikki Nack." Our reviewer is Tom Moon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.