Merrill Garbus has been making music under the annoying moniker tUnE-yArDs for three full albums now, across a half-decade, her voice a key element – stretching out to embrace hip-hop and dance music ideas, coiling back in on various indie-rock templates too. One minute she’s a one-woman Dirty Projectors and on this, the latest tUnE-yArDs she goes down the Vampire Weekend path of “discovering” African pop music. It’s quite possibly a phoned-in and faked appropriation and a new album after this might reveal her to be a fleeting cultural tourist but even if I’m not convinced by the energy and approach – as was so easy to believe on Paul Simon’s Graceland, on Mickey Hart’s drum albums, on Eno and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and Fear of Music – I’m won over by the fact that this sounds, for the most part, very cool.
It’s M.I.A. without the madness, the slickness of it, and the possible white-girl posturing – well that could easily put off as many people as it turns on but Garbus is doing something with tunes, she knows how to write a hook and how to deliver it and Nikki Nack arrives on the back of albums that were always hinting a move to this direction. It’s not just a left turn to be left where it stands – there’s a feeling that this was always going to happen. That doesn’t mean there aren’t duds, quite what the fuck she was hoping for with the ridiculous interlude Why Do We Dine On The Tots? is beyond me. It’s about as cool as the dumb case-shifting in the band name or the hip new retro-80s candy-colour look.
But when it’s followed by the Neneh Cherry-esque Stop That Man or preceded by the fun stomp of Sink-O it is easy enough to forgive a bit of misguided folly.
That then becomes a part of the problem with Garbus, quite how believable this all is – and the motivations behind it – well, that’ll forever issue some nagging doubt for me. The girl at the party that’s drawn the line of symmetry down her face, flecked it with just the right amount of glitter; she might have something smart to say, she might say it in just the right way but you’ll always be looking at that desperate conform-to-non-conformity buzz she’s got going on – clear as the dumb fucking line down her face – and it will trouble you. That’s the feeling I have listening to this.
A handful of pretty great pop songs hide in here though – Wait For A Minute with its thin shadowing of hip-hop to create something entirely new sounding, Real Thing with its throwback to early 90s R’n’B, the cool electro pulse and cut’n’paste feel of Hey Life but the fake field holler gospel of Rocking Chair is a bit of a fraud and Left Behind’s staccato Afrobeat rhythm just doesn’t feel right either.
Don’t look too close. That’s the secret here. Just enjoy – or else you’ll be second-guessing the whole time.