How Could We Forget Nellie McKay?
By
Ken Kase
12/22/2004 4:29:12 PM

"Nellie McKay both embraces and defies the stereotypical trappings of the chanteuse, using her well-crafted and eclectic mixture of song styles and textures as a launching pad for scathing satire, mature introspection and an unwavering refusal to be pigeonholed. "

Nellie McKay
Get Away From Me (Sony)
www.nelliemckay.com

We at NT would be remiss in letting 2004 pass without commenting on one of the most auspicious recorded debuts of the year. Released in February, 2004, McKay's debut album, Get Away from Me (Sony) is the sonic equivalent of Henry Miller's first novel, Tropic of Cancer; a glorious "gob of spit in the face of art", fired off with unerring accuracy at the increasingly profitable commodity (emphasis on "commode") of young, pretty singers like Norah Jones and Jane Monheit whose relentless middle-of-the-road pandering clutters the charts. But this is no mere reactionary work. Nellie McKay is the real deal whose mixture of bratty pessimism and a staggeringly sophisticated and mature musical sensibility flies in the face of such marketable image making. And here's the kicker--Sony had the guts to put it out!

McKay, a 19-year old music school dropout from London based in New York, both embraces and defies the stereotypical trappings of the chanteuse, using her well-crafted and eclectic mixture of song styles and textures as a launching pad for scathing satire, mature introspection and an unwavering refusal to be pigeonholed. The album encompasses a broad range of musical styles, from sultry and sometimes savage standard book parodies ("I Wanna Get Married", "Won't You Please Be Nice"), delicious pop songs ("David"), rapping rants ("Sari") and even 70s-era action movie funkiness ("Baby Watch Your Back").

McKay draws from influences far beyond her years. "Ding Dong", a cheery ditty about mourning the loss of her cat in a wading pool of gin contains just the right amount of songwriting smarts and poetic eye for irony that echoes Donald Fagen and would have fit in perfectly on Steely Dan's Katy Lied. "Suitcase Song", a light bossa nova stringing together an impressionistic series of phrases that interweave into a gorgeous aural pastiche of New York, is highlighted by dense and breathtaking background vocals that are as beautiful as they are disarming.

As a vocalist, the versatility of her instrument allows her to adjust her approach to suit each song's mood and message, slipping in doses of American and British accents to highlight certain lines that bring the lyrics to life. As a musician, she's a fine pianist responsible for the lion's share of the keyboard work throughout in addition to taking mallets in hand to create subtle textures on the vibes.

Producer Geoff Emerick, who was the chief engineer a series of albums for The Beatles from Sgt. Pepper through Abbey Road, clearly knows talent when he hears it. The production is lush but not cluttered, allowing McKay's natural talents to shine.

McKay's debut will be a tough act to follow. Get Away From Me sparkles with youthful creativity and dexterity, drawing the listener in for a game of slap and tickle. Wit, musical chops, a versatile voice and solid compositions make this one of the best albums of the year. But what will come next? Expect the unexpected from this extraordinary talent.

 

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