Wednesday, November 26, 2014

tUnE-yArDs: Nikki Nack (2014)



Because Merrill Garbus' previous tUnE-yArDs album, w h o k i l l, has played a large role in shaping the musical landscape of these last few years for me, it is difficult to look at her, or her band, or her follow-up record, with any kind of objectivity. My personal feeling of loyalty and attachment to everything about her work is on a level that has, as I've gotten older, become something of a rarity for me. Perhaps these ties became stronger when we saw Garbus live days after the death of my father and I felt, honestly, more alive in that crowd than I ever had in my life. Perhaps my immense respect, verging on fawning, betrayed me when I interviewed her in 2012 and did my best to write a coherent article about it -- in the end, the piece was so heavily edited as to become unrecognizable, and I haven't been paid for a piece of writing since. Maybe, in other words, I'm a g.d. fanboy. All the same, I have to swallow all such questions and stand by every claim I've made that Garbus is a major artist, among the most major currently visible, and I breathed a sigh of relief when I went back and read what I wrote here just a week after discovering her and had already detected that the key to her immediacy and charm was that her bottomless exuberance was undercut by a healthy, probing maturity.

To put all this another way: a lot has happened since what might be the finest record of the last ten years was released. The Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop poll unexpectedly lent victory to w h o k i l l instead of Bon Iver's Bon Iver (which I heard half a dozen times, and about which I remember nothing). Chuck Klosterman plastered his ignorance about everything that lay outside of Chuck Klosterman's own cushioned skull in the blather he wrote about her "asexuality" in response to the P&J victory, which is often cited as a fluke in a year without a clear favorite a la Arrested Development. Garbus has performed with Yoko Ono and the Roots, has opened for Arcade Fire in stadiums and quarries, burned herself out on her songs and her old touring arrangement that featured her plus bassist Nate Brenner plus a pair of saxophonists, has toured and experimented and gotten weirder and friendlier, and has released her third album. We've had the better part of a year now to explore it, and much like w h o k i l l, it reveals the danger of saying too much too soon. That album continues to reveal previously unheard nuances (lately, for me, in "Bizness" and "You Yes You") after three years. This one now sounds vastly different to me than it did on the week of its release.

When you come to the sequel to a record that you adored unequivocally and that changed your perception of modern pop, it's part of the game to temper yourself: you know this can't possibly strike you in quite the same violent, earth-shattering way the last one did, and in this case I knew that because almost no other record released in this century does that. Truthfully, these twelve songs (plus spoken interlude) don't strike and bite and purr nearly as directly as their 2011 predecessors. Disregarding its prowess as a piece of pop production, engineering and technical mastery (we'll come to that), it's far more like BiRd-BrAiNs than w h o k i l l. The songs saunter and strike and wander much as they did on Garbus' earlier recordings, only now with a more unwavering sense of purpose; they don't really go for the jugular like "Riotriot," "Gangsta" and "Powa." It's strange to call a record as bombastic as Nikki Nack subtle, but in writing and impact if not sound, it surely takes more time asserting itself than we might have expected. As it turns out, this is deliberate -- and really, we never doubted that, but some trace of initial disappointment was inevitable anyway.

What changed? What made this not one of the best records of the year just by default but a formidable evolution of a truly gigantic artist and band? Part of it was the obvious and instant desire to get to know it better; informed as this impulse is by Garbus' previous work, it's valid -- she demands to be heard again and again. And the songs that stood out stood out profoundly, and I wanted to know why. The advance single "Water Fountain," good as it is, was unavoidably and surely intentionally similar to the general sound of that record with just a hint of new direction -- it is very much like "Gangsta" and "Bizness" placed into the same song. It's even political in precisely the same way that the previous album was political. So for me, "Wait for a Minute" and "Manchild" were on first listen and now on sixteenth or seventeeth remain the highlights of Nikki Nack. And it was readily apparent that they were distinctive and grand for reasons that did not seem to comply specifically with what I heard in w h o k i l l.

Gradually when exploring these two songs, which truly knocked me out emotionally, and the bits and pieces that sort of reminded me of them elsewhere on the LP, it became clear what Garbus had done and why I was looking at it the wrong way. Garbus and Nate Brenner aren't reaching for the same goals anymore, and they've essentially moved the stage and started over. Some contextual factors help to see all this. Spending a lot of time with the album, the way we all used to when we were kids, helped. Hearing it on vinyl was a revelation -- the immaculate mastering of the LP preserves vast reservoirs of aural information in the lower registers it doesn't even occur to you to look for digitally; parts of "Stop That Man" and "Left Behind" sound like they are poised to physically lift you. And seeing the new songs performed live, where they unfurl in the new extended lineup (Garbus, Brenner, extra percussionist, two backing singers and dancers), would have rendered the album dangerously irrelevant if it didn't cause me to suddenly realize I knew every word, chorus, bridge, vocal tic or stick click by heart without even knowing I'd memorized them -- and indeed, if it didn't take a veil off the emotional depth of these songs.

w h o k i l l was an assaultive record. That's what made it so vital. It was a firebrand that came from a woman on unfamiliar ground, anxious to learn about herself and the world around her -- it was outraged, passionate, powerful. Nothing about it seemed careful or immaculately constructed. Nikki Nack, on the other hand, is a precariously shaped tower of ideas. The songs often wander into unexpected (and usually delightful) tangents. The ukulele has all but disappeared. The drums are no longer paramount; it's never about whatever's handy anymore, it's about what works in the moment. There is endless variance of style, theme and mood across the album, all of it worked out with audible precision; such variance also exists within the songs themselves, as witness an example like "Left Behind" that is wholly unburdened by even a few minutes' work of expectation.

After two albums of self-production, the first of them famously put together on an easily downloadable piece of freeware almost everyone with a PC has used at some point, tUnE-yArDs (now pretty much officially a duo, Garbus and Brenner) for the first time looked to an outsider to change things up. That is the Grammy-winning producer Malay, known for work with Fantasia, Big Boi, Alicia Keys, John Legend, and most famously the bulk of Frank Ocean's P&J winner Channel Orange. The new colors this brings to tUnE-yArDs' routine are quickly evident. There are cons -- professionalism in the studio mutes Garbus' personality just a tad, and has the effect of making her seem like just one more sound in a spectrum. The slickness that befits a fine performer like Fantasia or that gives Ocean's record such special resonance in its best moments isn't necessarily ideal for the person who gave us "Hatari" and "Es-So." For the most part, thankfully, Malay tempers nothing about Garbus' personality -- and he finds an unexpectedly maximized life in the underbelly of her songs that gives them new life of a very different sort.

The bass-heavy sonics are a shift, to say the least -- more so than you realize before you hear the album on a good system and compare it to older t-Y albums. This is most apparent on the massive "Left Behind," which in and of itself is middle-tier tUnE-yArDs but comes more alive the louder you let it, because so much of its wildly enveloping unease and drama is dependent on volume, which is hardly a criticism -- a huge recommendation with instructions, more like. The trend is equally pronounced if less assertive elsewhere. It might not have the bite of "My Country," but those synths on "Time of Dark" and the "see me over the mountain" primal-scream chant come off like the apocalypse once you listen properly. Despite the Burt Bacharach interpolation ("Always Something There to Remind Me" -- hey, she quoted Elvis on "Fiya"), the slow burning "Look Around" has all sorts of life buried in its mix that require your close examination. Despite the New Order interpolation (the opening drums on "Blue Monday"), "Sink-O" has rhythms too nutty, basslines too melodic and compulsive, to call one's mind to anything except Garbus set unexpectedly free in her new surroundings.

When I wrote about w h o k i l l, one point I was very insistent on was that it was "body music." I was right, but it now seems like a silly thing to have belabored then; in retrospect I was hearing an aspect of tUnE-yArDs that had only just begun to develop. More clearly now, w h o k i l l was a punk rock record -- turned upon the world to sing out and demand. Nikki Nack is R&B, often very straightforwardly. Despite being outrageously menacing and "big," "Stop That Man" and "Left Behind" both subsist wholly on rhythms and vocals driven directly from American soul music of various periods, particularly the '70s and late '90s. Playful as it is, "Manchild" is unambiguously groove-driven dance music, and there are no caveats to speak of in "Wait for a Minute" -- it is an R&B ballad, in writing, arrangement, and synth-heavy production.

A further peculiarity to Nikki Nack that seems obvious in retrospect, so seamless does it evolve from a sound Garbus already established, is its use of schoolyard-chant elements to bring forward often complex, usually incendiary ideas. From BiRd-BrAiNs onward, a sense of innocence in Garbus' lyrical dissections of class disturbance and social alienation was well matched by both her periodic attachment to simple, shouted phrases (see "What's that about? What's that about?" on "You Yes You") and her frequent use of recordings of children speaking, yelling or even eating. Like few recordings outside of hip hop, "Water Fountain," a sharp three-minute pop song about contaminated city water that varies and elevates itself freely without ever losing focus, sounds like a busy city street in the middle of the day: kids playing, adults dicking around and going places, families scattering and reforming, good and bad shit going down, and the occasional loud car or burst of music. But the chorus at the center of it suggests nothing -- nothing western, nothing African, nothing rock & roll -- so much as children shouting their taunting, time-tested rhymes while jumping rope.

The use of chant, of quick and sharp phrasing as a means of communication, recalls Bob Marley's best-known songs for their deceptive simplicity putting across large and sometimes uncomfortable truths; the heaviest, most difficult lyrics on Nikki Nack tend to be paired up with the starkest, most clipped melodies and choruses. The relentless call-and-response "Real Thing" is a challenge to appropriation accusations and yet its target seems largely to be Garbus herself, though "I come from the land of slaves / let's go Redskins, let's go Braves" is pointed in another direction, and so cutting and well-placed it incited a spontaneous cheer at the show I saw. "Hey Life" describes (with a Coasters reference!) exhaustion, mortal burnout and a panic attack with a weird joy that renders it confoundingly tense: "One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock / Walk and walk and talk and talk and walk and talk," spewed out in rapid monotone, in so few words eloquently convey the feeling of not being in control of one's own life. It says all this musically too, and masterfully so, tinkering then tapping then exploding. Similiar anxiety permeates the darkly worldly "Sink-O": in the bridge, Garbus eats Pop Tarts and watches The Voice; she "cannot fall asleep but cannot face the day."

And it's more than the day -- kind of a satire of empty liberalism, "Sink-O" prompts a quick-witted investigation of oblivious folk literally swallowed up by a world of limply protested racial profiling and drone strikes, but lays little blame at their feet, since Garbus charges herself with being just as guilty of looking the other way as the rest of us. This is a recurring point in her interviews, that part of her art is that she has no superiority, no answers. They seem as frustratingly out of reach to her as to us. That was true on w h o k i l l as well, which hinged on the tortured "when they have nothing, why do you have something?" question, but that was an album that participated in fist-in-air celebration and fighting back, or at least self-consciously pushing back against one's inability to do so. Nikki Nack prevents any true release like that of the "freedom in violence" climax on "Riotriot," the joyously apathetic capitalism of "You Yes You," and the unabashedly beautiful classic-soul bridge on "Doorstep." On Nikki Nack, the kids just keep skipping over the rope, which keeps turning and turning.

That sounds fatalistic, I suppose, and maybe it is -- but it's also poetic. Because tUnE-yArDs have become increasingly sophisticated as a band even as the music seems to become compositionally ever more primal and stripped back, they are able to waver uncomfortably on these ideas for long stretches and make large points without preaching or "bringing them home," so to speak. In some places they call that jamming. The band intends to make us uncomfortable, and it's commendable. We can't confirm if Garbus is vegetarian (or vegan), but the Swiftian spoken interlude "Why Do We Dine on the Tots?" -- performed in the style of Nicki Minaj's opening readthrough of an excerpt from Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes in the Kanye West song "Dark Fantasy" -- is certainly designed to make us question ourselves if we're not, and on that evidence and the lyrical sway of the album toward self-criticism, either conclusion is equally likely.

BiRd-BrAiNs fans are bound to be somewhat relieved after all this by the simple, spiritual-like "Rocking Chair," which sees Garbus exercising her more familiar vocal tricks again. w h o k i l l fans will be relieved by "Manchild," which gives us at last a chance to participate in a real shouted-along triumph: a righteous, brilliant anti-rape, anti-slut-shaming, anti-MRA anthem. Garbus has performed with Yoko Ono a few times in recent years, including helping out on her 2013 album Take Me to the Land of Hell, and the barbed, witty "Manchild" ably takes up the mantle of Ono's best music -- it's elegant and specific in its rhythmically expressed anger. "Oh little manchild, look at your pants / an accident happens each time we dance," great, "I mean it / don't beat up on my body," greater, but the singalong hook of the year? Here: "Not gonna say yes when what I really mean is no / Not gonna say no unless you know I mean it." It's the anti-"Blurred Lines," and a wondrously moving rebuke to the wrong side of a culture, the only time on Nikki Nack wherein the premise seems to be that there is such a thing.

Garbus' vocals, the center of everything on her first two albums, are sometimes backgrounded on this LP, but once you overcome that obstacle it's easy to hear that her voice has gotten steadily better and still more adaptable. "Look Around" might be the best exposure here; it begins with a coo then slowly bristles and seethes. "Real Thing" grabs a little of the Mahotella Queens / Andrews Sisters stuff from "News" but her control is obviously greater now. She her live for proof -- how her movements vary according to whether what she's singing is in a spirit of sarcasm or sincerity; when it's the former, she moves with the clipped robotics of David Byrne in Stop Making Sense. And when she's doing a highly personal song like "Find a New Way," the opening cut that almost directly narrates the composition and creation of the album itself (a notion that owes at least a little to Leonard Cohen), she is looser, freer. These are both skills of a different sort and she knows when and how to employ them, with greater exactitude than ever before.

The voice is still what drives the hooks, though. One element of this record that's difficult to get used to is how frequently the various parts of these songs seem almost disconnected from one another. It takes a long time to intuitively understand that each verse, chorus and bridge of "Sink-O" and "Real Thing" (which also wanders into the album's craziest musical interlude) all belong under the same title. It says a lot, still, that these fragments make their way so snugly into one's head so quickly. And if side two of Abbey Road has taught us anything, it's that we shouldn't fault pleasing little moments for not leading us anywhere in particular. Quick -- which song has the "peace / peace and love / love is waiting" bit? What about "holiday! holiday! let's go crazy!"? Maybe you know, maybe you don't, but I bet you remembered both melody lines instantly.

Out of all the advancements on Nikki Nack, and there are plenty even if it doesn't rise to the heights of its predecessor, Garbus' lyrics stand out as the prime achievement. Already capable and compelling, here she proves herself one of those rare artists whose words truly reward as much of our attention as the music. Her first record consisted mostly of personal songs about the sort of aches we all know well. Her second, like so many second albums for generations before her, expanded outward to try and understand the larger world; she did it better than most. She still does: that blood-soaked dollar on "Water Fountain" is something else. But Nikki Nack fuses self-narrative with politics in an often striking, incisive manner. On "Manchild," "Hey Life" and "Real Thing" the line thins -- it was impressive that Garbus seldom seemed to be speaking from her own voice on w h o k i l l. It's impossible to know for sure if she is now, but that she seems to be and is so sincere and witty in doing so (like Tracey Thorn or Josephine Olausson, and trust me when I say I do hate comparing her in this sense strictly to other female singer-songwriters, but the pickings are slim for men who write about themselves and don't sound like total assholes -- see: masculine self-pity charlatan Mark Kozelek) is disarming enough. She's funnier and sadder now, when her points are obvious and when they aren't. She even talks about finding this new voice and describes it to us while we're hearing it, like Win Butler telling us what we're feeling on The Suburbs only more exciting.

Way back in 2009, Garbus wrote and sang this in what was probably her first truly perfect song:

I am not beautiful
I am in bloom as the world goes underground
And I am not beautiful
And I am not magic yet
But I am in bloom at the end of the world

That was "Fiya," the one about how she should have just stayed at home, the one about her own skin making her skin crawl. And in the wake of five years of ever-increasing success, of playing and being adored by the people who come to her shows and buy her records, of being taken seriously as an artist and having occasion to be challenged and to collaborate, and to form what seems to be a creatively fulfilling relationship with her partner and bandmate, what does she now have to say about what goes on in her inner world?

Monday, I wake up with disgust in my head
Could not forgive myself another moment spent in the bed
Monday, the mirror always disappoints
I pinch my skin until I see the joints

Today I'm feeling like I live on the ledge
Any moment I just know I'm gonna fall off the edge
They say, "hang on"
I promised them I will but I don't know for how long

Why do I spend the soul of my day
Looking for any way to waste away?
The pain is in the empty time
Just twiddling my thumbs and hoping for the words to rise

Today I couldn't stand to be all alone
And sick of hearing my voice on the telephone
A thousand roads to injury
Most of them so smooth it doesn't feel like they're hurting me

Not knowing what the future will bring
Is always wrecking my day
I guess I'll drown my fear and seal my fate
A haze of cravings
Easier to do it than just sit here and wait

That is "Wait for a Minute," apparently another song about Merrill Garbus loafing around between albums feeling disillusioned with her entire process, herself, her work. None of us know what it is like to be Garbus. Lord, if I did, maybe I'd be capable of writing a once-in-a-lifetime line like "A thousand rodes to injury / most of them so smooth it doesn't feel like they're hurting me." But this song, the sincerity and selflessness of which produces a lump in the throat without exception, gets across beautifully and utterly free of pretension how much her struggles mirror our own. It's because of the lovingly unassuming way she sings it just as much the way it's written. And in a career that has been largely about the act of questioning privilege, especially one's own, it is major that the most open-hearted and unguarded song she has written since her earliest days on this project appeals to a common humanity. I need to stress here that in the sphere of influence she has among the people who care about these things, Garbus is a Big Deal. She means a lot to people, me among them, who are ordinary and live ordinary lives and do their best with sometimes lonely, throttling struggles. It is not a small thing to know that someone who is a hero to a lot of us not only deals with the mirror, the thumb-twiddling, the binging on Pop Tarts and the being sick of oneself, but is willing to go out into this huge world and talk about it. That is a major, colossal, unspeakably touching thing. Maybe this kinship I'm suggesting is the mark of a bias but I doubt it. As the song goes, "Even in silence there are voices who will sing."


You can now read my complete (though short) 2012-vintage interview with Merrill Garbus here, dug up from the gmail archives for the first time eva! More tUnE-yArDs reading from me (if you want): Essays about BiRd-BrAinS and w h o k i l l, writeups of the shows I saw in 2011 and 2014, and the (very abbreviated and clumsy) profile for Metro Times Detroit.

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