Merrill Garbus plays fast and loose with cultural signifiers, and her band name alone indicates an antagonistic bent with its case-shifting approximation: tUnE-yArDs. For her third official album, Nikki Nack, Garbus ventures even farther down her multi-colored, veering rabbit hole, picking up where her 2011 sophomore effort, w h o k i l l , left off, but not necessarily achieving the same success. Her proper debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, was initially released on Marriage Records and then reissued by 4AD in 2009, but it was w h o k i l l that racked up critical approval and a cult following for Garbus’ quirky, vibrant vocal layering and flashy pop mosaics.
Even in the three years that have passed since then, the lens of critical examination has shifted a bit, or perhaps, become more nuanced. One of the touchstones that Nikki Nack evokes in my mind again and again is Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986). That Simon’s classic record drew heavily on South African pop was part of its appeal, but if it came out in 2014, conversations about cultural appropriation would be rampant. In the same way, listening to Nikki Nack is sometimes an uncomfortable experience, and descriptors like “pseudo-tribalism” easily surface even on cursory listens. Where does influence end and appropriation begin? In many senses of that dichotomy, it probably depends on the listener. But African pop’s euphoric groove is almost impossible to confuse with anything else, and most of the album relies on the foundations of that tradition.
“Rocking Chair” specifically suffers from the feeling that it’s a track crafted to assume the easy longevity of actual heritage folk tracks, but it feels stiffly studied instead of free-flowing from an actual shared vernacular. She glibly mixes folksy fiddles and a hoarse, hollow well of vocal yelps that feel unnatural in their guttural phrasing. She’s faced cultural tourism critiques before for her face painting, and even for w h o k i l l track “Gangsta”, which tackles gentrification and stereotypes with a rather heavy hand, as does Nikki Nack’s “Left Behind”. A line goes, “We said we wouldn’t let them take our soil,” which feels more than a little rich from a white woman raised in New England. Sure, these lines can easily be mythology and not autobiography or realism, but the record routinely engages in this kind of odd projecting.
The attempt that Nikki Nack makes to grapple with serious social issues is strangely belied by the album’s collage-like feel and carefree elements. For instance, album closer “Manchild” asserts, “I mean it/ Don’t beat up on my body,” potentially addressing issues of domestic violence and that gruesome ilk. But the track is buoyed by cowbell and tinny click-snap beats and seems ill-fitted for its subject matter. Earlier on the album, “Real Thing” contains the lyrics “I come from a land of slaves/ Let’s go Redskins, let’s go Braves,” which conflates a series of intensive racial issues in America into a neat, flippant phrase that seems to value end rhyme over its own endgame. Is this her attempt to bring attention to these inequalities and the capitalistic support of stereotypes by American sporting complexes, or simply to rhyme two problematic examples? Time and time again, all the finesse and flex of the album’s distinct harmonies and intricate structures are undercut by clunky and even bizarre diction. Often the rhymes feel too dead on, like end couplets were adopted simply to follow the pattern with no real ear for grace.
It’s odd, because in some ways, this is the kind of art that many of us have been crying out for — art that actively engages with social issues and seeks to confront or assert liberal stances instead of juggling the same eros and alcohol-fueled ideas. But her focus also strays. An odd one-minute-plus mid-album skit called “Why Do We Dine on the Tots” relates a cannibalistic tongue-in-cheek short story done with the same funny voices many of us adopt to read books to our favorite kids. It’s an embarrassing, albeit brief, moment in a record fraught with other flawed lyrical flubs.
But even after all these observations, the way the record sounds is almost enough to keep the jagged edges from sticking in your craw. Lead single “Water Fountain” is hookier than a DJ Mustard radio smash, and even if it unnaturally contains the phrase “ride the whip,” it’s impossible to shake the handclap rhythm that jitters its way right under your skin. The evolving orbit of “Look Around” is another high point, undulating through the adoration of a stable lover. Its tightly packed harmonies are grated through distortion, but the crisp backbone of vocal acrobatics is Garbus’ strongest asset. “Stop That Man” and the other album single, “Wait for a Minute”, are other bright spots, expanding into dream pop territory and the crossbreed form of alt-R&B that the last five years have manufactured. When the record hits, it hits so cleanly and sweetly that superlatives spring to mind unbidden. But the record’s highs simply can’t balance out, or make up for the lows.
Parts of Nikki Nack are interesting, deeply beautiful, and insanely catchy. Other parts are painful to listen to given their overt blindness to the nuances of holding conversations like the ones she attempts to initiate. Regarding her conversations with others who questioned why she was traveling to Haiti, Garbus herself writes that she went to “situate myself in a non-western musical tradition.” Then, indicates that her listener was shocked by writing, simply, the word “Pause.” Too bad she gives herself the credit for innovation in the silence that ensues, instead of considering it’s her audience that is skeptical of such open cultural tourism.
Essential Tracks: “Water Fountain”, “Stop That Man”, and “Wait for a Minute”