Someone once told me that the reason Doritos taste so objectively good – and that you can eat so many – is that there are so many powerful flavors that your taste buds never get used to the chips.
I’m not completely sure this is true, but if it is, then Nikki Nack is the Doritos of albums.
Right off the bat, a complete generalization, this album is an assault on the ears. The best assault possible. Each song has elements of instrumentation that ties them together as recognizable, but are each different and unique on their own. So many little touches and details – the barely noticeable yet deep backing on the vocals in “Stop That Man”, for example, that make each track that much better. Better as in deeper, as in more fulfilling and satisfying – the difference between McDonalds and a homecooked meal. There are little additions, completely uncalled for and extra, that push this album over the edge. Each track is another step towards that jump off a fifty story building. Dangerous, risk-taking, and exhexhilarating.
tUnE-yArDs third full-length album, Nikki Nack, is a force to be reckoned with. Instrumentation alone includes vocals (shouting and singing and back of the throat rolling/gargling and something scat-like in between), clapping and maracas and strings and guitar and synth and bass – the list goes on and on and further on the closer you listen. Almost each track has conflicting chords, certain notes seeming to fight with their own musical brethren, tension building attacks between instruments. The skillful start-and-stop use of sound, and silence, creates what I can only describe as the perfect amount of dissonance – not used only in a way to mix things up but as a complementary way to transcend what normal, wash-cut-dry produced pop music is. There’s an element of darkness, toughness, grittiness that deepens the flavor of the sounds.
Released in May of 2014, the album was influenced by the lead creator, Merrill Garbus’s, trip to Haiti, studying Haitian percussion. In college, she studied abroad in Kenya, planting the seed of African percussion, rhythms and beats. This is apparent throughout, the song “Rocking Chair”, a seeming love ballad to the timbre and ways of African music – minimal instruments (some coming in for only seconds), clapping and stomping, layered voices of different pitches and volumes (some simply noises) – all of these stacked and played together. Seamlessly, Garbus blends elements of tradition music with current electronic undertones. The pure energy of the songs takes you on a wavy trip up and down, messing with your senses just enough to keep you absorbed.
Not only does the music blow away expectations of most pop songs (a dirty word for most ‘alternative’ music minded individuals), the lyrics are deep and expansive – as flavorful and settling as that home cooked meal mentioned earlier. The album takes you on a journey, pointing out issues with race and America, with government and their control, what they do (or don’t do) with their power.
“Water Fountain” speaks about both poverty, the lack of government aid and the current corruption. The opening lines of the song are; “No water in the water fountain/No side on the sidewalk,”. The first thing sung speaks of how things are decaying – the place where you walk is literally no there, there’s no water, and also the fact that the government’s job is to give us these things – take our money, make promises – and yet they are currently useless – who can use a fountain without water? – or nonexistent. We put our most basic needs, like water and a safe space to walk, into their hands, and this is the results. “We’re gonna get water from your house (your house).” When resources are low, people are going to get what they need, regardless of if it’s welcomed or not. There are lines about neocolonization, there are lines referring to enslavement and other violence. There’s a line in Haitian Creole tied in and a call for action; all while littered with an old, nursery rhyme folk tale song. There are so many layers packed into just one song, just one example that holds true for the rest of the album.
In “Real Thing”, she calls forth the effort to speak truly about America’s history with slavery and oppression, pointing out every-day issues by singing, “I come from the land of slaves/Let’s go Redskins/ Let’s go Braves” . On lack of protection, in “Stop That Man”, Garbus sings, “He wanted what is mine/But I’ve paid too much/…We’ll have to be our own policeman.” The fact that the government isn’t concerned about it’s citizens, about safety, how they’ve fallen off and worried about some other (probably selfish) thing, and hold people are left to defend themselves in a world where even neighbors steal and are violent.
The album’s ‘Interlude’, if you can even call it that, is titled “Why Must We Dine on the Tots?” and is based of A Modest Proposal, a satirical solution to poverty and hunger where the poor would sell their children to the rich so the rich could have food and the poor could have money. This four paragraph song, honestly a very short story, has people sitting around eating ‘tots’ which the listener eventually learns are children, most likely toddlers from the shortened ‘tots’; “Of course we must dine on the tots/ What good were those kids before they were our food, outrageously smelly, impulsive and rude/Thus you know very well that the fresh produce rots.” While the possible meanings are many, this could easily be looked to as the rich feeding off the work and innocence of the poor for their own gain.
The lyrics of this album are so littered with fantastic wordplay, timing and depth. You can look at some of the lines and find four different meanings, easy. Paired with the off-putting yet still, in it’s own way, wonderful instrumentation, Nikki Nack (and tUnE-yArDs in general) is not an experience you want to miss.
Song Exploder Podcast about “Water Fountain” : http://songexploder.net/tune-yards
http://www.spin.com/2014/05/tune-yards-interview-nikki-nack/ (for brief info about Haiti influences)