The brainchild of former puppeteer Merrill Garbus, Tune-Yards may have recruited mainstream producers John Hill (M.I.A.) and Malay (Frank Ocean) for their third album, Nikki Nack. But fans of their previous avant-garde sound will be pleased to know that the Connecticut duo remain as giddy, senses-assaulting and unashamedly bonkers as ever.
In fact, featuring everything from warped doo-wop R&B (“Real Thing”) to dubby electro-folk (“Find A New Way”) to a bizarre spoken word children’s story which is nothing short of terrifying (“Why Do We Dine On The Tots?”), the follow-up to 2011’s Whokill is an early contender for strangest record of the year.
Inspired by a visit to Haiti with Oakland-based drumming group Rara Tou Limen, the two constants on Nikki Nack are the hypnotic clattering percussion which virtually demands the listener’s attention (most notably on the tap dancing finale of “Sink-O”) and the tribal chants which inevitably conjure up images of a lion cub being raised into the air.
Tune-Yards’ organised chaos can often be both weird and wonderful, as on playful lead single “Water Fountain,” which blends spacey electro bleeps, hopping basslines and tin-can drums with a melody reminiscent of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” and the dancehall-tinged ode to a lost city that is “Left Behind.”
But its constant restlessness can also test the patience – only the dreamy psychedelia of “Look Around” sticks with a particular sound for more than a minute – as can Garbus’ self-involved tales of life as a singer. Likewise, the scuzzy dubstep of “Stop That Man” feels entirely out of place on a record which otherwise appears to take great pride in ignoring any current trends.
A typically bold attempt to balance the primal with the digital, Nicki Nakk is undoubtedly fascinating. But its mass of disconnected sounds means it’s difficult to fully embrace TuneYards’ idiosyncratic vision.