Tune-Yards breaks four year silence with their most subdued album
by David Kennedy
It’s been awhile since we’ve heard anything from Tune-Yards. Their last release, “Nikki Nack” came out four years ago, me more than enough time to forget they existed. Tune-Yards is the experimental pop project of Merrill Garbus, a singer and multi-instrumentalist originally from Connecticut, with Nate Brenner on Bass.
What initially attracted me to Tune-Yards on their second album “Nikki-Nack” was a paradoxical balance of childish exuberance and technical precision in the music. Something about them feels like elementary school arts and crafts. They play with sound unrestricted, even though everything is also obviously very consciously composed. Vocals shift from yelpy singalong choruses, often reminiscent of jump-rope rhymes, to meandering sing-song verses. All the while meticulously arranged harmonies jump in and out of the mix. African drums and clap hands mix with fuzzy basslines and synthetic percussion to create rhythms which are both scattered and carefully syncopated. You can imagine how some of these qualities can make Tune-Yards both fun and irritating on the same song. In general, this represents them at their best: totally unrestricted.
In the new album, they’ve done away with some of the organic elements to take a more straightforward pop approach to their music. At its best this results in the same schoolroom eclecticism stripped down to its sharpest hooks. Such is the case with the singles, “ABC123” and “Look at Your Hands.” Both of which are upbeat tracks, loaded with hooks, and a playful energy, belying themes of anxiety and violence in the lyrics.
Cultural anxiety is a prevalent theme for Tune-Yards, particularly on this album. On the song “Colonizer,” Garbus airs out her guilt over drawing influence from traditional African music in the past (an influence whose absence is felt on this album). They’ve sung about this sort of anxiety before. It can be a potent place to draw inspiration from, but on “Colonizer” it results in a track that is at best dull, at worst annoying, and on the rest of the album it results in a more subdued, less energetic Tune-Yards.
It’s worth a listen, but anyone interested in really off-the-wall pop music should check out “Nikki-Nack.” 3.5/5
Favorite track: Look at your Hands