Nellie McKay
Home Sweet Mobile Home


I was really curious to listen to the new Nellie McKay CD, her first on Verve featuring all original material, one year after the release of her homage to Doris Day titled Normal As Blueberry Pie, three years after the release of her album Obligatory Villagers, for this writer the pinnacle of the artistic growth of this US musician, composer, and singer. For me, Home Sweet Mobile Home was supposed to clarify some of my recent doubts, as I'll explain in just a short while.

I pre-ordered the album, waited (and waited some more... we are taking "import" here), and here it is, at last. I placed the disc inside my CD player, and I waited, with a strong sense of anticipation. Track #1: a sustained note on guitar, then drumsticks counting off the time - 1, 2, 3, 4 - and then it's drums, guitar, and a pseudo-Rhodes on a synth. Vocals being doubled, heavenly choirs, "send me a smile like Charo" (?) (here I looked for the lyrics... what do you mean, there aren't any?!), then the chorus... The vocals sound just like Avril Lavigne (!), the song sounds like having been written especially for her by... (Diane Warren?). An ugly snare shot, a key change (which sounds forced), fake, pomp strings, then it's back to the chorus (there's even a kind of "bad cut" at about 4' 16"), then it's over.

It was at this point, while I tried to understand if evil forces had transported me to an ugly parallel universe, that a familiar voice started singing with the only backing of a ukelele, almost as saying "it's me, it's the same old Nellie!". Much to my surprise, I heard somebody shout, and I recognized my voice, and I was shouting "NELLIE, WHAT THE FUCK HAVE YOU DONE!".

Well, not quite. But this is what could have happened, maybe, before the Net was invented, had I received the album without knowing a whole series of facts I'll talk about in a moment.

Just to clarify: For this writer Nellie McKay is one of the most intelligent, versatile, and creative musicians who debuted in the last decade, this being the reason I'm talking about this album now. Her debut, Get Away From Me (2004), still sounds excellent thanks to its variety, maturity, and originality, her vocals on the album are always versatile and confident (no need to add those "extra points" due to the "age factor"). Two years later, Pretty Little Head managed to brilliantly avoid the "second album sounds just like the first, only less fresh" syndrome, while it signaled her divorce from Sony (the giant behind her first album) and the start of an independent period. Then, Obligatory Villagers.

Then it was time for her to sign a new contract (please notice: it's "big Universal", not "tiny Verve" we are talking here), and chapter #1 left me puzzled: what's the point of "Introducing Nellie, again", after three albums, putting aside McKay's original pieces only to cover songs made famous (once upon a time!) by Doris Day? As it's been officially stated, the move was suggested by her A&R man Mitchell Cohen, probably in the hope this could give an easy hook that media could use to talk about the album. How many copies were moved I really don't know. I didn't like the album, more for my lack of sympathy and understanding when it comes to that repertory - also for my antipathy when it comes to commercial operations such as this - than for intrinsic faults of its own. I decided not to review it, waiting for her original material to return.

It wasn't a peaceful wait, though. First, I got to know about a "contribution" by David Byrne. What kind of "contribution", exactly? This I don't know, things written about this ranging from "a guiding force and spirit" to "artistic guidance". Quite strange, while the "thanks" list in the album liner notes is quite long, Byrne's name is nowhere to be found. I sent a few e-mails asking about who was gonna work on the album on a technical level, and I got back one name which was totally unknown to me: Tony Maserati. I had a look at Wikipedia, and... gulp!, this is not my kind of music, but obviously technical skills are a whole different matter. Strange fact: It was in the course of an interview that Nellie McKay learned she had a Twitter account (one supposedly set up by her record company). More strange stuff: While her new CD was priced at $10 + p&p, her official site announced a limited edition (500 copies) Fan Pack costing $35, featuring: a signed lithography, a copy of the same CD that's on sale, the same material once again under the guise of an mp3 file, and four unreleased tracks in mp3 format. Quite a bargain!

The album is a big let-down. It looks chromatically similar to the Doris Day one, no lyrics to be found. The "missing lyrics" rationale being quite strange, this is the thing as I understand it: There's a contrast between the music, which now sounds "calmer, less confrontational" than on her previous albums, and "subversive" lyrics. But where are they? A tiny platoon of friends of mine looked all over the Web, but no luck. Funny to notice that those few reviews I happened to read quote those very lyrics with generosity, though piecemeal; stranger still, in some Forum somewhere, those from abroad who lament the lack of written texts are told "but they are quite easy to get!". Here people will have to make up their minds on their own.

But it's the music that's the main problem. Here we have "mostly formula", the usual traits becoming mannerisms. No innovation, no invention, the "new stuff", for instance a new attention for Latin-Caribbean rhythms, doesn't add to much. The problem is not the album offering "too much variety" (haven't all Nellie albums featured a great deal of variety?), but its being superficial. Featured musicians are of varying quality - after a long time, it's good listening to Bob Glaub's bass, while some featured drummers and guitarists have an ugly sound - but having the musicians as the guilty part would not be fair: the material, which is not so great to begin with, is organized in order to highlight the vocals, which are fine but have to move in a limited, constricting framework - a framework that the singer herself designed, at least in part.

Bruise In The Sky is the abovementioned bad opening number. Adios is a melodic track for voice and ukelele, a serene ballad. Caribbean Time is a reggae track featuring the rimshot; here sax and clarinet are played by McKay herself. Please is a relaxed ballad in ¾ featuring the ukelele, a drum loop, sax, and synth, a bit Broadway-style, with a "fake guitar" that almost fooled me; it sounds like a demo!, and it's quite similar to things recorded at Lofish Studio that appeared on Pretty Little Head.

Beneath The Underdog is a funky calypso with a fine bass performance by Bob Glaub. "I've gotta exorcise your spirit from my soul": Dispossessed is a track that dangerously courts pastiche, with Latin-sounding performances by trumpet, sax, and vocals by Willie Murillo and Mark Wisher, who also did the arrangement. The same is true of ¡Bodega!, a Broadway cha-cha-cha with strong mariachi accents. Placed in the middle, the melodic track titled Portal, featuring the piano: it could have been a minor episode on her previous albums, it sounds great here.

There's an horrible saxophone on Coobasa Blues, a track so monotonous it sounds interminable. No Equality woke me up, with swinging R&B, sax, and an arrangement by Paul Holderbaum: it features muted trumpet, a fine bass, excellent vocals, an uncredited piano.

Surprise! Absolute Elsewhere sounds like it's coming from a different world (or at least from the Obligatory Villagers sessions): great marimba, a vocal melody that sounds a bit more abrasive, a strong wind section, solo trumpet and tenor sax, an excellent rhythm section. Unknown Reggae is another reggae track, sounding fresh and spontaneous; but "it just sits there", so it sounds too long. Violin, trumpet, trombone, tuba, saxophone, drums, piano, and vocals are featured on the 40s-sounding Bluebird, recorded live.

I looked for the word "compromise" in my dictionary, this is what I found:

a) "an agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions";

b) "a middle state between conflicting opinions or actions reached by mutual concession or modification";

c) "the acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable", with a for instance that I found to be quite appropriate: "sexism should be tackled without compromise";

but it's also the acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable when it comes to the arts that I think should be tackled without compromise, don't you agree?

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2010 | Oct. 14, 2010