Wednesday, May 7, 2014

album review: 'nikki nack' by tUnE-yArDs

Let's talk about cultural appropriation.

Now before everyone jumps down my throat, I think defining this in terms of music would be helpful, so here it goes: cultural appropriation means the usage of specific musical elements that can be directly linked to another culture without proper knowledge of their execution or reasoned intent. In other words, if you're going to borrow from other cultures, know what the hell you're doing and do it well. Because believe it or not, I'm not inherently against the embrace of the material from other cultures, as to strictly confine oneself to their own narrowly defined culture can limit musical expression and shuts down the conversation about integrating and blending artistic ideals and expressions.

That said, what people tend not like with cultural appropriation is when the artist uses it to add connotations of exoticism or tribalism or in the worst cases denigrating or incorrect stereotypes associated in the collective western unconscious with that sound. It's one of the issues I've had with Vampire Weekend's usage of African elements: sure, it fits the modern multicultural atmosphere the band has always striven to create, but the underlying defensiveness regarding privilege in their work has always made their usage of these elements a little uncomfortable - which is really frustrating for me because otherwise, I really like their music! This also became an issue with Arcade Fire's most recent album Reflektor, an album that utilized Haitian elements to enhance their inspiration from Black Orpheus, but then overloaded their stage show and revealed in their songwriting a serious misunderstanding of those elements.

And yet when I took a look at tUnE-yArDs' 2011 album whokill, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my fears of cultural appropriation were mostly unfounded, as lead performer Merrill Garbus seemed to be aware of the roots of her material and was trying her best to recreate that brand of pop - and was, for the most part, thanks to her soulful and bold delivery, succeeding. She reminded me on a deeper listen a lot of M.I.A., especially in her patchy lo-fi production, colourful sound collage approach, and complete lack of subtlety. But say what you will about M.I.A., at least her first two albums approached the subject matter with a cohesive tone. By contrast, whokill was perhaps the most placid and buoyant album exploring violent subject matter I've ever heard, and despite some harsh-leaning lyrics and a rich organic sound, it lacked organic depth and deeper insight to me, and it wasn't nearly raw enough to connect on a visceral level either. In other words, as much as I liked the bass melodies and the textured percussion, I felt the album lacked the punch to bely its subject matter.

So honestly, I was curious what was in store for the next album, Nikki Nack, which looked to be heading in a different direction, at least instrumentally. How did it turn out?

Well, it's a better album than whokill, at least in my opinion, and I do appreciate more of what tUnE-yArDs is trying to do with this album. That said, while I can recognize quality, it's also a record that I can say just isn't for me. I'm not saying that it doesn't execute its purpose or deliver interesting or cohesive music, but I know my tastes and I can say that Nikki Nack isn't really a record I can see myself revisiting much further. It doesn't mean I'm not going to recommend the album - because I am - but it plays to a different sound palette than one I usually like, and acknowledgement of that fact while still recognizing the albums strengths and weaknesses is, to me, an appropriate step.

So let's start with Merrill Garbus herself - who is, in my opinion, the biggest reason why anyone should listen to tUnE-yArDs, because she's a great presence behind the microphone, not only stepping up with an impressive, expressive range, but effortlessly harmonizing with her backing vocals time and time again to pretty much carry the entire melody of this record. Her voice reminds me a lot of Lou Watts, formerly of anarcho-punk band Chumbawamba, one of my favourite bands of all time - and frankly, I'd argue Garbus has an ever better sound and emotional presence than Watts did. And while I'll admit my personal preference lies in the more melodic singing, the fact Garbus can contort her voice into all manner of shouts and yelps does add a lot of variety.

In fact, variety is practically the name of the game on Nikki Nack, because once again we get another cacophonous sound collage of vocals, well-textured and eclectic percussion, the subtle thrum of Nate Brenner's bass, and most notable, a selection of synths that vary from cheap mid-80s Casio lines to fuzzy chiptune. In that element, tUnE-yArDs maintains the scrappy, pieced together sound they always had, but it feels slightly better mixed on this record, especially on the slower tracks that give the bass more presence and give the songs a little more room to breathe. And while I can't say all of the synth choices work for me - the chiptune ones, in particular, really don't feel cohesive with the percussion - they do compliment the melodies fairly well, especially when they add some thicker grime to tracks like 'Stop That Man' and 'Manchild', which can cut back on some of the brazen cuteness that appears all over this album in the nursery rhyme cadences and melodic progressions.

But my issues with tUnE-yArDs have always been in lyrics and themes, so what is Garbus looking to talk about here? Well, it's a little more disjointed than on whokill, but her focus is still plainly on generally agreeable anti-consumerism, women's rights, and finding a way to stick together even as the world crumbles around us. Indeed, that sense of 'togetherness' is a running motif of the album, and my personal favourite track is 'Wait For A Minute', a song where Garbus is fighting against her own insecurities and loneliness, showing some vulnerability that really does deepen this record. Outside of that, her songs about women's issues in 'Stop That Man' and 'Manchild' do show some impressive, if bluntly presented nuance, and while it's nothing revolutionary, it's still welcome to hear. However, I'm not the biggest fan of her anti-consumerism tracts: while there is nuance in songs like 'Water Fountain' and 'Left Behind' and the satirical spoken word piece 'Why Do We Dine On The Tots?', they feel a little broadly sketched and show traces of that tonal inconsistency that peppered whokill, and while I do mostly agree with the sentiment, they didn't quite click.

And just to revisit the topic of cultural appropriation, I was both surprised and a little anxious when I saw Garbus tackling it directly in 'Real Thing', where she seems very much aware of the fact she's not the right person to utilize this sort of aesthetic and seems thus determined to viscerally point out the blatant hypocrisy in not stopping her. Now I do respect the intent and the execution is solid on this track, but at the same time, there are points that were a little questionable. Take the lyric in Sink-O, a song about the collapse of society and how will some will choose to fend for themselves above helping others, and then you get 'If I went up to your door / You wouldn't let me in / So don't say you don't judge by the colour of skin'. Or take the lyrics in 'Left Behind', 'We said we'd never let 'em take our soil'. Again, I get the sentiment behind these lyrics, but there were better ways of sympathizing with Native Americans than phrasing the lyric quite like that.

But all in all, there are pieces of this album I genuinely do like, the slower moments in particular. It's certainly unique: you're not going to hear a record like tUnE-yArDs's Nikki Nack any time this year, but at the same time some of the garish, clattering, shouty moments of this album do grate on my patience. It reminds me of that friend you all make in college, the one who always seems to run on limitless energy pursuing a dozen or more social justice causes with passion and fervor and while you admire her energy and can even be sucked into it on occasion, it definitely gets tiresome to be around that friend for too long. And that's how I feel about this album, so with the acknowledgement that it isn't quite for me, I'm giving it a 7/10 and a recommendation. Social justice albums are rarely this simultaneously eclectic and cohesive, so on that note alone, Nikki Nack by tUnE-yArDs is definitely worth a look.

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