Nellie McKay
Pretty Little Head

(Hungry Mouse)

It was about two years ago that (not exactly by chance: friends I hold in high esteem having suggested that I listen to her) I got to know Nellie McKay (first of all, her colorful character - something we always have to consider as being closely linked to her incredible talent). I have to confess I felt that subtle and pleasant sense of wonder that one experiences whenever one is in front of an "unknown quantity" - an expression by which I do not mean "an unknown name" but something more along the lines of "where the heck does she come from, anyway?". I still remember the cover of the Culture supplement of the Sunday Times: platinum-blonde hair, long red dress, the young lady (said to be about nineteen) appeared as having stepped out of a Hollywood "sophisticated comedy" from the Forties. Beyond the facile publicity slogan ("Doris Day meets Eminem", wow!), it could have been something in bad taste destined to a very brief kind of fame, but her biography and a couple of interviews I read seemed to point to a strong personality, somebody who had really paid her dues (something that's quite uncommon, these days), with a strong attention (a sign of being adult well past her age, this) for the cultural signifiers of the musical forms and for the way musicians "show themselves"; last but not least, also a clear refusal of the "teen sex" dimension which has been one of the prevailing types of music (?) styles of the past decade.

It was her talent (she's an assured and versatile singer, an agile multi-instrumentalist, a mature writer of both music and words) that made it impossible for her debut album, Get Away From Me, to collapse under the weight of its ambitions; a lesser talent would have made the album sound totally ridiculous: can you really imagine a (successful) mix of 40s jazz, Broadway musicals, rap, bossa nova and so on? Very rich narratives, a stimulating kind of singing "in character" (something that reminded this listener of the more caustic side of Randy Newman), a very clear "socio-politic" perspective. (A highly perceptive friend of mine wrote to me in order to underline the "friction" that existed between the particular history of some musical genres that were featured in her album and the "message" they put forth in this particular instance.) I still haven't mentioned former Beatles' engineer Geoff Emerick, who did an excellent job in producing an engineering the album.

Having become familiar with the album (whose beauty and depth have not been diminished by the time elapsed since its release date) my curiosity was all about McKay's future: would she grow as an artist? what about her commercial success? what if the usual compromises would be offered by the usual record company men? Already Get Away From Me had seen the label refusing to release the one hour long album as two CDs, McKay herself forking the money necessary for the released version to appear in that form. I could only knock on wood, and wait.

I had already reserved a copy of her yet-unreleased new album - there had been a few reviews Made in the U.S.A. - when the announcement I so feared was made known: no more release, no more contract. It goes without saying that the rumour factory went full blast. This much is clear: confronted with a replica of the first album - one hour, two CDs - the label prepared a single-CD version with 16 tracks instead of the 23 the artist had prepared. The "short version" was the one that was reviewed in the press - and immediately leaked on the Internet. Now we know the rest of the story: Nellie McKay has released the album the way she originally saw it, via her new independent label.

Listening to Pretty Little Head in the artist-approved edition it's quite easy to see the way it differs from the one assembled by her former record company: McKay's self-portrait features a series of "sonic vignettes" (they are mostly on the second CD) that to a commercially-minded point of view could appear as bizarre and potentially disruptive of the listeners' enjoyment of the album. For this writer, some of these tracks (for instance, Food) will not become part of a list of favourite McKay songs, but other tracks (Lali Est Paresseux, Pounce) possess a beautiful grace, while titles like Swept Away and Old Enough appear as opening quite different narrative possibilities for her. (That a record company and an artist can part ways for such reasons remains a mystery to me.) But now we have to go back a bit.

The first album had brought Geoff Emerick, strings and winds, seventy-two tracks of analogue, rich arrangements, compressed vocals la Beatles and a nice budget. Dunno whether it's true, but I've read about Get Away From Me selling 140.000 copies. The new album could not be more different. Already a co-producer on her first album, where she also did the arranging, Nellie McKay has produced and arranged Pretty Little Head in a smaller studio, Lofish Productions in New York, which I imagine to be based on a digital platform but still possessing a real piano and a room where one can record a live band. I have to confess I'm not familiar with any of the musicians, save drummer Ray Marchica (whose work I had happened to enjoy on an album by Ed Palermo featuring his arrangements of material by Frank Zappa) and two "special guests", singers we'll meet in a short while.

McKay has chosen an approach that I imagine to be quite similar to her live concerts, with nice keyboards, a pulsing rhythm section, plus layered vocals. We still have the polystylistic approach of her first album, with the exception of the rap element, here only on Mama & Me (I can't really understand the reason why some of my US colleagues have adopted a dismissive attitude towards this track). I found McKay's producing approach for Pretty Little Head to be fresh and communicative. I also believe McKay's studio vocals on this album to be more authoritative than in the past.

The opening track is the joyous Cupcake, which is followed by the very "60s-sounding soundtrack-like" (is that really a sitar?) Pink Chandelier. There You Are In Me is a classic track, enigmatic and multi-thematic with a vocal presence by turn delicate and massive. Yodel works as a light interlude. The Big One (which - I don't really know why - reminded me of What's Going On) has a strong rhythmic figure and a very good bridge. The melancholy-filled G.E.S. is followed by the Sixties-lounge of I Will Be There, with its agile quasi-Hammond and delicate chorus. The "morality tale" The Down Low is one of those tracks that one can't possibly take out of one's head, with a light bridge sporting a tambourine. The 40s are back in Long And Lazy River, where the drums are played using the brushes. The sad and quiet I Am Nothing has a nice cello. The beautiful closing track, Swept Away, is preceded by Beecharmer, an exhilarating duo with Cyndi Lauper (!) which brings to the mind Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, her world-famous hit from the 80s; it's nice to listen to the musical rapport the two musician have in a track that could (potentially) be a Top 10 hit.

While the first CD offers a track sequencing that's practically perfect, the second CD is definitely less than the sum of its (considerable) parts, due to an excess of variety. Which doesn't imply there are not many quite brilliant moments. The excellent Real Life opens, sporting a nice piano solo by McKay. Tipperary sounds convincing, even though I had the feeling I was missing some important historical/musical reference, and the same is true of the following track, the beautiful Gladd. Food is a light moment that I doubt will survive repeated listening. We Had It Right is the other duet, this time with k.d. lang: it's a mix of c&w ballad, reggae and Gregorian chant. The tense Columbia Is Bleeding is for me one of the high points of the whole album - check McKay's bravura in portraying all the various characters of this intricate narration, a bit like a sinister cartoon. Lali Est Paresseux is light and melancholic at the same time, and the same is true of Happy Flower. As closing tracks we have the sad-rap Mama & Me, the brief and facetious Pounce and the beautiful Old Enough.

Since a few reviews I've read are a bit on the tepid side (at least in the USA, since Italy had already answered the non-release of the previous CD with a roaring silence - but don't they always say they go looking for all things strange and original up to the Pole?), it would be easy for me to remind readers of the quite near end-of-year festivities, and of how we all need to buy some gifts for our loved ones. More seriously, I was talking to a friend of mine, just a few days ago, and we came to the real paradox of this album: that it's so full of music that's so "simple" to listen to, but that appreciating it is not so "simple" at all.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2006 | Nov. 28, 2006