When people talk about music that’s ”primal,” they generally assume the band bangs out tribal rhythms on a gourd, or uses such lo-fi production that it sounds like the songs were recorded by a Minotaur.
But Merrill Garbus, the one-woman band behind tUnE-yArDs, is challenging the idea that primal music has to sound old. On her 2011 breakthrough, w h o k i l l, the Oakland multi-instrumentalist used digital technology to loop and layer traditional African beats and the kind of playground chants that go back for generations, added ukulele plinks and multitracked vocals — and created a future-folk freak-out that so defined this moment of Spotify-surfing pastiche that the album topped countless critics’ year-end lists. On her third full-length, Nikki Nack, her love of music that’s rich with history still makes for propulsive listening, even if some references are willfully obscure. (There’s a skit based on Jonathan Swift’s ”A Modest Proposal,” which Garbus once performed as a puppeteer.) After visiting Haiti last year, she picked up Haitian drumming, and you can hear its influence on the deliriously playful ”Water Fountain.” But her interest in mining the past feels more personal this time, whether she’s sampling a Casio keyboard that she got when she was 9 (”Sink-O”) or recalling the radio hits of her childhood (“Left Behind”). There’s plenty of history in her voice, too, as she makes kiddie jump-rope singsongs sound as soulful as ’90s R&B. ”Hey life/I am still here,” she purrs. Good thing, because life needs joyful noise like this. B+