The ridiculously gifted Nellie McKay’s talent seems to only be matched by her chutzpah. The 19-year-old pianist/singer/songwriter not only wrote all the songs on her debut, she talked Beatles engineer/Elvis Costello producer Geoff Emerick into producing it (for a reduced fee!) and convinced her label to release it as a double disc. (Knowing good and well it would fit on a single disc, she felt a double-disc debut would make a bigger splash.) And, sure to face comparisons to Come Away With Me, the multi-platinum calling card of another young piano stylist, Norah Jones, McKay fired a shot across that particular bow by entitling her’s Get Away From Me.
Displaying an encyclopedic knowledge of pop styles, McKay mixes Tin Pan Alley, Lilith Fair and hip-hop. She sounds like a genetic splice of Hoagy Carmichael, Tori Amos and Missy Elliott. It’s never obvious where one of McKay’s songs will end up, but it’s invariably a fun ride getting there. Her lyrics are similarly unpredictable: one song will go off on a political tangent, while in the next she’ll be panting like a dog, picking up cute guys in the park. Everything is delivered with such wit and zeal that even those on the receiving end of her wickedly funny barbs can only enjoy themselves — any man in hearing range of the savage male-bashing in “It’s a Pose” will likely nod his head and admit he had it coming. The overwhelming feel of Get Away From Me is one of joyful discovery — McKay sounds as amazed and delighted by her own talent as anyone else, and is having the time of her life exploring it.
McKay ran into all kinds of trouble following Get Away From Me. Her age was challenged from several quarters, including her own father, who remembered her being born a couple of years earlier than she did. (McKay never retracted her claim of being 19 at the time of recording her debut, but she quit publicizing it.) She got on the bad side of Columbia University by protesting animal experimentation in the university’s laboratories and was in the cast of a poorly received Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera. Most significantly, she managed to get herself booted off her label.
Banking on McKay becoming a major artist, Sony had indulged her whim of a double-disc debut. When she generated the same amount of material for the follow-up, the label balked and demanded she deliver it at single-disc length. McKay refused. Sony did it anyway, and sent out review copies of a single-disc Pretty Little Head, which garnered excellent pre-release press. McKay raised holy hell, and the album was pulled from the release schedule. When it became obvious that McKay wasn’t going to back down, Sony read the writing on the wall and waved bye-bye to an artist whose commercial potential would almost certainly always be matched by her potential to be a total pain in the ass. She was set free to shop Pretty Little Head around, and spinART (which, ironically, has done deals with Sony in the past) wasted no time snatching up the distribution rights for the release on McKay’s personal label, Hungry Mouse.
The dispute over Pretty Little Head shows that, in rare instances, both sides of a fight can be completely right. Sony was correct that it would be a stronger single album, but McKay was right in grasping that a huge part of her appeal is her willingness to over-reach and to make a loony over-the-top gesture. Just as Sandinista! wouldn’t be Sandinista! without all the unlistenable crap at the end, McKay wouldn’t be McKay if she played nice and got along with her peers.
On the whole, Pretty Little Head more than fulfills the promise of Get Away From Me, with fuller sound and more varied tempos and arrangements. She wisely jettisons her attempts at rap (though not bad, they were the weakest aspect of her debut) and concentrates on Ben Folds-meets-Doris Day piano pop. She tempts fate by singing duets with powerhouse vocalists Cyndi Lauper and kd lang, but McKay holds her own, and the results (“Beecharmer” with Lauper and “We Had It Wrong” with lang) are highlights of the album. The new development of full- throttle rock on “Real Life” isn’t completely successful, but isn’t a disaster, either. The French language “Lali est Parriseux, “ the feline-themed romp “Pounce” and the bitter “Mama & Me” could’ve been sacrificed for the good of a single album release with the world being no poorer for it, but in the context of a double album they’re serviceable filler. Pretty Little Head is further proof that McKay is a force to be reckoned with.
The ever-perverse McKay followed up the extra-long, contract smashing Pretty Little Head with the very brief Obligatory Villagers: nine songs in under a half-hour, one of which — the scatological “Livin’” — is barely 20 seconds long. Perhaps the release was greeted with sighs of thank-god-we-don’t-have-to-work-it gratitude from the suits at Columbia — if Pretty Little Head gave them a headache, Obligatory Villagers most likely would’ve caused a mass aneurysm. Not that it’s bad — far from it. The Broadway-inspired music is fun, and McKay’s wit is so sharp it could shave an entire baboon (or balloon) with one stroke. The nine musical numbers here are more memorable than anything Broadway has churned up in decades, but the number of people anxious to hear savagely funny, politically charged quasi-showtunes can’t be very large. The album shows that, if she chose to, McKay could spend the rest of her life earning Tony Awards; otherwise, Obligatory Villagers earns its place on the shelf next to Van Dyke Parks’ Jump — a stylistically anachronistic work of near-genius with no likely audience.
McKay contributed six songs to the soundtrack of Jennifer Aniston’s Rumor Has It, including an excellent jazzy take on Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” the Byrds-at-a-sock-hop “Pasadena Girl” and “Baby, You’ve Got What It Takes,” a duet with Taj Mahal.