So, what have we got this time then? A new premium-quality music streaming service; well, that’s just what we need; isn’t it? Especially when you line up a bunch of superstar investors for a launch event that makes the service sound like it’s going to put an end to world conflict. I’m not even giving you a link to the video of the launch because on the tedium scale it’s somewhere between a party election broadcast and watching custard set. Here’s the summary: two minutes of introductions (to a crowd that apparently hasn’t heard of any of the celebrity stakeholders), ten minute ‘inspirational’ speech from Alicia Keys, two minutes of signing ‘the document’ and two minutes of standing around looking embarrassed while someone tries to find a border collie or a cattle prod. Sixteen minutes and Madonna only hogged the limelight once; that has to be a record. I’ve had more fun at the dentist.

Just take a look what this motley crew (they’ve got one thing in common, but we’ll get to that) are so evangelical about; what are they actually trying to sell you? Basically, the sales pitch is that it’s like Spotify but better, which means you have to pay twice as much for it. I’m not saying Spotify is perfect but if the alternative is punters downloading illegally and artists being paid bog all, then I’m on the side of Spotify. Tidal isn’t an attempt to address the big issue of music having no value because you can download it free from any number of illegal sites, it’s purely about commercial rivalry; we’re better than Spotify but that’s reflected in the subscription price. Unlike Spotify, there isn’t a ‘free’ version of Tidal, you buy in or you don’t.

And then there’s “lossless” compression. In the words of John Lydon, ‘ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated’ – there’s no such thing as lossless compression. You can compress something so that it sounds reasonable on a phone or a media player, but why not try playing that same file through a decent hi-fi setup. No, don’t, that was rhetorical, it’s going to sound horrible; if you take information out of an audio file, it’s going to be noticeable eventually if your ears do more than keep your head balanced. If you stream audio, the higher the quality, the more problems you’ll have with buffering so you wouldn’t want to make things more difficult by introducing video playback, would you? Yeah, you just might, and you might want to introduce social features (nothing new) and have the music carefully curated (obviously not patronising at all – we’ll tell you what you should like) while you offer exclusivity (you can hear the new Beyoncé song here first).

So, the bottom line is that you can pay twice as much as you would pay for Spotify for the dubious privilege of “lossless” streaming which will sound just the same on your earbuds or PC speakers; anyone buying in to that yet? Thought not; how about new artists, surely an ‘artist-owned’ service would help to bring new talent through the system. No, not even a mention, so who benefits from this premium service? Easy, the bunch of artists on the stage at the beginning of this piece. The bunch of artists who have one thing in common; against the odds in the twenty-first century, have already made huge amounts of money from the dying embers of the music business. None of the artists involved in this enterprise actually need more money, but they’re happy to take if they can get it.

Maybe Jay Z’s pissed off that Dre managed to corner the market in headphones, but that’s no excuse for launching this ill-conceived ‘premium’ service. No-one involved with this project comes out of it with any credit.

 

Nikki NackTune-Yards -- aka New England vocalist Merrill Garbus and partner in bass-playing crime Nate Brenner -- have allowed some major pop producers, namely John Hill and Malay, access to their already established and almost aggressively individual sound. Concerns of a disaster in the making may ring out; their first album unbelievably lo-fi and the second self- produced -- how would makers of albeit alternative but identifiable r’n’b pop affect the truly eccentric and self-sufficient band’s identity? Well, not as you much as you may imagine or possibly fear. There are changes of course as one would expect and also hope from any artist that has been producing music in excess of five years, but these are subtle and even, on occasion, welcome amendments made to the Tune-Yards manifesto.

2011’s “Whokill” was an astonishing force of nature; it blew everyone and everything that stood in its path away but left Merrill Garbus drained and creatively arid. “Nikki Nack”’s opening lyrics tell of Garbus’ frustrations and the encouragement given to her by a stranger based only on her casual, overheard, singing:

‘You tried to tell me that I had a right to sing

Just like a bird has to fly

And I really wanted to believe him because he seemed

Like a really nice guy

But I trip on the truth when I walk that wire

When you wear a mask, always sound like a liar

I tried to tell him all the reasons that I had never to sing again

And he replied ‘You’d better find a new way’

Garbus’ wide eyed, exclaiming vocals -- certainly soulful and often astoundingly powerful -- sound pretty much the same on “Find a New Way” as they always did. The change then comes mainly from the songs themselves and Tune-Yards development as writers. Garbus has spoken about her love of sticky, ear worm- songs that attack the brain, embedded forever. One of the objectives she had for this album was to figure out how to write such hooks and incorporate them without compromise of creativity and individuality. Maybe this was the reason for recruiting the producers of, amongst others, Pink, Shakira, Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera; John Hill and Malay are music specialists who understand how to navigate an artist towards the potential of a great melody. Along with Brenner, the band has again self-written the entire record and this objective of creating catchiness has, on the whole, been met, with many satisfying examples.

The first half on “Nikki Nack” is more convoluted stylistically than the second and also has a lower hit rate. “Water Fountain”, the album’s first single, squashes all of Tune-Yards characteristics and tics into one song. It’s a very tight squeeze; playground skipping rhymes, yelps and ‘yee- ha’s!’, clanging and clattering percussion, exhibitionist vocals and lyrics about a crumbling and under-funded neighbourhoods and a video that references Peewee Herman’s “Play House”. Ostentatious, wacky and be-jewelled, it’s not subtle and, after the initial and undeniable rush has worn off, it’s not enduring either. “Look Around” and “Time of Dark”, both slower tracks, feel longer than their playing time and “Real Thing”, which starts off brilliantly with staccato thrown verses circa “Writing on the Wall” era Destiny’s Child, ends in a tangle of voices and sonic muddle.

Hey Life” chronicles an existence led too fast accompanied by anxiety and a pressure to cram as much as possible into every waking second; its drumming, synth prods and speed singing all add to the heightened feeling of panic with Merrill central to the ensuing chaos. It’s a minor track in some ways but one that is nonetheless thrilling and manages to avoid any cartoonish inclinations on a track where this could have been an easy temptation.

The strongest section of the album begins with “Stop that Man” which introduces a trio of songs where evidence of growth in song-writing and an ability to apply a more contained but ultimately more rewarding approach is clearly apparent. One of the continued aims of Tune-Yards has been to comment on social and left-leaning political issues with lyrics that are set against predominantly upbeat and dense dance rhythms and beats that imply a celebratory mood. Casual racism, gentrification and sexual harassment are all central themes here and “Stop that Man” questions racial assumptions based on media statistics and news reports and also personal experiences. The song succeeds mainly though by being part angular, glitchy electro clash experiment (it turns inexplicably and temporarily into Blue Monday/ Bobby O for forty-five seconds mid-song) and part glorious, singalong pop song. So if Garbus’ intention was to create a song serious in intention that you’ll also sing and dance along to, she has also again succeeded.

Left Behind” and the downbeat but not depressing, smoothly r’n’b “Wait for a Minute”, probably the album’s best tune and performance, complete the trio and these moments are some of the finest in Tune-Yards discography to date. There is nothing that rivals the unruly, audacious and already ground -breaking “Gangsta”’ for example, here; the Tune-Yards of “Nikki Nack” are indeed more mannered but also more intricate with one beady eye placed on fine detail and songs that reveal themselves more slowly and reward generously over time. Claims of cultural appropriation, for they have been made, are surely overblown and only on the multi harmonies of the lullaby-like “Rocking Chair”, short and little too on the nose, does the intention grate. Other influences can also be heard, Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper, Missy Elliott and Timbaland, Santigold, Big Boi, MIA and Neneh Cherry in particular all register at certain points but never once could you mistake Tune –Yards for anyone else. “Nikki Nack” may not shout its intentions as loudly as before but its power is found elsewhere, you’ll find yourself madly singing its merits -- probably unaware and almost certainly with glee.