After the incredible success of tUnE-yArDs’ 2011 masterpiece, w h o k i l l — a critical darling that earned the No. 1 spot on the Village Voice’s annual Pazz and Jop poll — it was hard to imagine where Merril Garbus would go next. Turns out, Garbus, the powerful voice and mastermind of the one-woman-band-turned actual band, wasn’t sure, either. For a musician and producer as inventive with sound and wordplay as she is, Garbus says she’s always had at least some music she was workshopping or planning to record. But after some time off, there was little left on the shelf, and in order to restock, she realized she had to challenge herself.
To watch Garbus play on stage — as she constructed each drum hit into a danceable polyrhythmic groove and each vocal line into textured harmony with the help of live looping pedals — was to catch a glimpse of what it’s probably like when she writes new material. But this time, she wanted to stretch beyond that by going into the studio five days a week and trying to craft two demos a day.
“I also had rules,” she explained, “This week I’m only going to write using drum machines’; ‘This week I’m going to write using vocal melodies first, and build something around that.’ At the end of that, I had about 30 demos.”
Those demos eventually became the backbone of tUnE-yArDs’ superb third album, Nikki Nack — which features work from producers John Hill (Rihanna, M.I.A.) and Malay (Frank Ocean, Alicia Keys, Big Boi).
At the center of the record is “Water Fountain,” another trademark no-holds-barred song propelled by a rubbery bass groove from Nate Brenner, Garbus’ clacking, room-shaking polyrhythms and infectious chorus of singers. The dense yet playful song is emblematic of Garbus’ new sonic direction found all throughout Nikki Nack— check out those bit-crunched digital artifacts and incredible percussives skittering around the headphones. tUnE-yArDs’ music is undeniably fun, buoyant, and even more explosive in concert.
Where Garbus’ w h o k i l l band was comprised of herself, Brenner and two saxophonists doubling as percussionists, this new iteration triple downs on the rhythm and the voices: There’s another female percussionist and singer who bangs away at an impressive battery of drums and electronic pads, and two additional female singers, who also dance with moves equally choreographed and improvised, tribal and modern. That layered chorus of voices added so much complexity and inventiveness to these songs — it was gorgeous and soulful to hear, and joyful to watch them flail and glide around the stage.
And that visual component is also a large part of the the experience: Across the stage, there’s little Pee-Wee-inspired monster creatures from the “Water Fountain” video affixed to the instrument stands — and cartoony eyeballs as part of a flowy backdrop. And of course, everyone in the band wore brightly colored fluorescent clothing and wild tribal face paint that illuminated with a DayGlo sheen under the bright lights and black lights. To watch tUnE-yArDs perform is like being transported into a Saturday morning cartoon funhouse (er, Playhouse?) full of fun danceable grooves and killer melodies you want to shake and sing along to.
But obviously, there’s more depth to this music than meets the eye: Merrill Garbus is one of the most inspiring figures in music right now — with an uncanny ability to craft songs equally full of joy and anger. And as she sings about global inequality, gender politics, and economic and cultural struggles in her distinctively unrestrained voice, her songs carry extra power. As always, Garbus is an adventurous musician, a playful front-woman and a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her force of nature. This music feels completely of this moment and beyond. Not only is Nikki Nack is among the year’s best records, but tUnE-yArDs’ put on one of the best live shows of the year so far.