ALBUM: Nikki Nack
It’s difficult to aptly describe the inventive sound of the tUnE-yArDs—sometimes it’s melodically unkempt, tribal, and freaky, other times, it’s composed and unswerving. Their sound, however, is consistently funky. The tUnE-yArDs is a band that makes you consider the possibilities of using limiting devices to produce a large, highly texturized sound. It’s music that creates within itself its own magic. Merrill Garbus, vocalist and the band’s front-woman, uses a loop pedal to produce uniquely layered progressions. Garbus’ looping of her voice transforms snippets of vocals into a motley group of percussionists. Supporting Garbus is bassist Nate Brenner who provides an anchoring link under and between these imaginative loops. Together, Garbus and Brenner create a pulsating set of eccentric tracks.
Their previous album, w h o k i l l (2011), is more pungently rhythmic. Garbus’ looping skills are focused on forming a thick bass line and allowing the punctuated rhythms to carry the tracks. Nikki Nack doesn’t diverge from the heavily rhythmic; however, the band’s advanced sense of experimentation is evident in their third studio album. What may be most interesting about the tUnE-yArDs’ sound is the process. Garbus has described her process as “making a collage of sound” and has often acknowledged the use of the loop pedal as a device with a productive limitation. This limitation refers to the use (and abuse) of recycled sounds. Garbus uses a palimpsest configuration—recording a loop and writing over that loop with more loops—to create a highly texturized sound. This technique creates a spiraling, animated accrual of sounds that reminds me of the inherent challenge of using an old typewriter. Besides the exertion required to press each key with force, a typewriter demands the user’s complete presence in order to adequately capture a word. There is no “delete” button and the user may choose to cover up a mistake by writing over it; therefore, making public an editorial modification. Like the typewriter, a loop pedal depends on what is present in the present. What is gathered in the present is what will be carried on in the track’s future. This metaphor may be most applicable to live performances, where Garbus recreates loops with the hopes of capturing the loops in the track’s studio version. This limitation provides Garbus with another creative illumination—what is recorded, whether or not it mimics the loop of the studio version, will occupy the space of the track and the space it holds. Though indelible, the loop is made elastic by its treatment against the ensuing loops. A limitation often offers an artist with opportunities for strange and enlightening experimentations and the tUnE-yArDs indulge in these experimentations to produce their special sound.
Garbus’ voice produces its own phenomena. It’s a unique combination of a matronly, wise expression with a joviality that’s spurred by its own throaty chattering. It’s punchy and bites giddily. It’s tempered and melodious. Garbus’s playfulness is not isolated to the loop pedal. Playing with her voice, she provides her own retorts—encouraging her voice to propel the conversation out and back. Her voice can be seen, too, as its own modulated loop—circling on its hoisted echoes and extending out to tonally capture emotions of angst, melancholy, and pleasure. Moreover, Garbus’ lyrics touch on motifs of individuality, relationships, and roles. They frisk the political and are at times educational. The most memorable moments of lyricism come from quirky idioms that stick as they’re skirted by heavy drumming and more looping.
In glimpses, portions of songs sound familiar, but successfully jolt out of this familiarity to achieve a voltage of quirkily layered sounds. There’s something uniquely “new” about tUnE-yArDs’ sound that is curiously uncanny—it’s a sound that speaks through its convoluted interiority. Though all tracks have a mouthy, substantial feel, some tracks wander and disperse into cacophonous medleys. This sophisticated mess is a product of the uninhibited and spontaneous nature of the sounds themselves. They often sound like premeditated blurts or interruptions and have an animalistic, urgent quality to them. Such songs may require multiple listens to enjoy. Other times, the songs maintain linearity, rising into the hook expectedly. In whatever case, all songs showcase Garbus’ frisky and lively use of the loop pedal. Nikki Nack, overall, is a special combustion of sounds with a frenetic sparkle that’s worth diving into.
“Nikki Nikki Nack. She told me ‘never bend back’. That Nikki Nikki Nack, turn her around and spit on her back”.