Nikki Nack

When we first met tUnE-yArDs back in 2009, it was all about making a lot out of a little. As a debut, BiRd-BrAiNs pushed the limits of lo-fi recording, looping syncopated drums and ukulele in ways that were pop-centric, yet jarringly distinctive. Now, five years and one widely successful album later, we remeet tUnE-yArDs for Nikki Nack. Like its predecessors, Nikki Nack is immediately recognizable as tUnE-yArDs; the drums are off-kilter and glaringly non-Western; the vocals androgynous and boisterous; the lyrics catchy yet structurally akimbo. But from there, the album takes a hard left turn. In place of her signature ukulele loops, mastermind Merrill Garbus turned to the computer, injecting her rambunctious musings with a wall of percussion that’s dancier than anything she’s made to date. Inspired by Garbus’s recent trip to Haiti, and fueled by a year of studying Haitian dance and drumming in her hometown of Oakland, Nikki Nack seems to buzz with a nervous energy. The bass is driving and heavy-handed but also tightly wound, resulting in a sound that sounds both foreign and recognizably urban. And the juxtapositions don’t end there. Lyrically, Nikki Nack dips into the social (“Stop That Man,” “Left Behind”) and women’s issues (“Real Thing,” “Manchild”) that Garbus has long dealt with, but sonically it calls to mind the children’s shows of the singer’s youth. (Mid-album interlude “Why Do We Dine on the Tots?” frames cannibalism in a three-minute spoken-word fable.) Odd? Yes. But aided by Garbus’s newfound arsenal of digital drum machines, Nikki Nack manages the unlikely feat of cerebral pop that’s geared for the dancefloor.

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