In 2011, American singer and songwriter Merrill Garbus (born 1979), who records as Tune-Yards, released Whokill, one of the best albums to come out that year. The work captured some of the social anger and some of the fighting spirit simmering under the surface of life in the US and throughout the world.
Garbus’s music blends together a number of influences, but in particular the sounds of South African music from groups like Johnny Clegg & Savuka and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. She has also studied drumming with Haitian performer Daniel Brevil. Her complex but danceable sense of rhythm and melodic inventiveness are fresh and attractive.
Garbus’s voice is also different and powerful. There is something hard in it, and strong. She is no shrinking violet. She belts it out in the best way and represents a relief from much of what dominates in pop and R&B music today: whisper-soft cooing, on the one hand, and torturous, self-involved warbling and strained powerhouse vocals, on the other. “Oh my god, I use my lungs,” she sings on “The Real Thing.”
Tune-Yards’ latest album, Nikki Nack, is as strong as the last. There is confidence and spirit in the music. And while Garbus may not have the deepest appreciation of the social forces at work in the world today, there is a genuine oppositional streak in her. She sings of struggling and fighting, and all the associated difficulties, but nothing in her music feels withdrawn or defeated.
The lead single from Nikki Nack is “Water Fountain,” which sets something of a tone for the album. The song introduces images of various obstacles restricting people, preventing them from flourishing and leading the lives they want.
Garbus sings: “No water in the water fountain/No wood in the woodstock/And you say old Molly Hare, whatcha doin’ there?/Nothing much to do when you’re going nowhere.”
She later asks, “Why do we just sit here while they watch us wither ’til we’re gone?” An intense and remarkable array of drums rolls over and through it all, as if to say: “We won’t take it any longer.”
On “Look Around,” with its slow, steady march forward, she sings: “Our friends have died waging war against their rulers/Come here, don’t cry/We won’t let anybody fool us.”
She adds movingly, “I will be always something you can lean your weight into/I will be always something you can rely on.”
In “Hey Life,” one of her best, Garbus sings of what it means to be endlessly overworked, exhausted and used up, always “running, running.” The percussion recalls at times a clock ticking away the seconds, at other times the sound of tools beating away at their work.
“I woke up with a heartbeat like a panic attack,” she sings. “Life, I love you so much I scream and shout/But I’m one foot in, one foot out/Which is kind of like running on a roundabout, you know/I don’t wanna run out/But I’m running, running.”
In “Left Behind,” she takes up gentrification: “This place has really changed its ways/And it’s been ruined by the boats of rich folks coming here.” “Stop That Man” is her response to the killing of Trayvon Martin and her answer to the law-and-order, vigilante mentality.
At times, the album is perhaps a bit manic. It takes up so many themes, and throws as much sound and feeling at them as Garbus can muster. The album is busy, ambitious. A lot is happening all at once and all the time. One rarely has a chance to catch one’s breath. Well-played, thick bass guitar runs provide an anchor around which percussion, layered background vocals, keyboards, samples and the kitchen sink swirl.
In some respects, this reflects something of the times, the heating up of things, and an eagerness for change. However, one also feels Garbus is at times passing by things too quickly. Occasionally, the lyrics become too obscure for their own good, so that Garbus is singing about important topics, but not as precisely or helpfully as one would like. She is angry and impassioned, and she should be. But aggression in itself does not automatically translate to a higher understanding of the world or to truer pictures of it in art. Garbus could—and she must—consider social life more deeply. Her music will only be richer for it.
Even as one acknowledges those reservations, Tune-Yards’ Nikki Nack stands out as one of the best pop albums released this year.