tUnE-yArDs' music thrives on contradictions, not the least of which is how an album as singular as W H O K I L L earned the critical consensus to top The Village Voice's 2011 Pazz and Jop poll. The fascinating dualities continue on Nikki Nack: Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner's third album is also their most musically sophisticated, yet its primal emotions come through even more clearly. It's not that Nikki Nack is more focused than the band's previous work, since it's overflowing with sounds and ideas (and Garbus has always had a firm grasp on her aesthetic). "More concentrated" might be a better way of expressing the album's vibrancy and vitality -- and how these songs are even more distinctive and accessible than tUnE-yArDs' previous music. "Find a New Way" suggests that this evolution wasn't exactly easy, but Garbus and Brenner turn the struggle against writer's block into something joyous, with sparkling harpsichords and beaming choruses channeling liberation and determination in equal measure. The duo did find a new way for Nikki Nack, eschewing the loops that dominated Bird-Brains and W H O K I L L for intricate polyrhythms (Garbus even went to Haiti to study drumming) and collaborating with producers Malay and John Hill, who have worked with Big Boi and M.I.A., respectively. Somehow, sacrificing some of tUnE-yArDs' D.I.Y. ethic brings out more of their music's essence. The R&B elements lurking in their music come to the fore, especially on the dreamily impatient "Wait for a Minute," one of Garbus' poppiest and most emotionally complex songs yet. The duo's ambition is also more apparent on the excellent "Time of Dark," which moves from moody introspection to towering empowerment, while "Look Around" sings the praises of love and self-reliance in a threatening world. Though their new way is on display throughout Nikki Nack, there's a lilt to Garbus' melodies and rhythms that is quintessentially tUnE-yArDs. She understands and modernizes the power of rhythm-based storytelling, passed down from nursery rhymes, jump-rope chants, and work songs, and gives it a subversive twist. Ominous images like bloody dollars, cracking whips, and drought cloud "Water Fountain"'s musical sunshine, while the child-eating grandparents of "Why Must We Dine on the Tots?" provide a neat, if horrifying, allegory for how the old guard cannibalizes opportunities for young people. Elsewhere, the duo touches on so many issues -- "Real Thing" alone tackles fame, consumerism, and body shaming -- that it could feel superficial if it weren't for the passion coursing through each track. Nikki Nack's awareness is perhaps most refreshing when it involves self-awareness: "Hey Life"'s reflection is profound in its simplicity and offers some much-needed breathing room on an album that borders on sensory overload. Nikki Nack demands, and rewards, repeated listening to appreciate everything Garbus and Brenner are doing. It's an oddly nourishing album that's as big a step forward for tUnE-yArDs as W H O K I L L was from Bird-Brains.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares