Nellie McKay
My Weekly Reader

(429 records)

Three surprises in one shot, last month, all coming from Nellie McKay, a musician possessing a strong originality and lots of depth that I consider to be one of the most interesting artists that appeared in the last decade. The first surprise was learning that a new album - her first after five years, also her first on a new label - was to be released in two days' time. The second surprise was noticing that the new album - a US import CD - was on sale at a price that can only be defined as "exaggerated", something that for a moment had me reconsider the attitude of those "illegal downloaders" (my opinion didn't exactly improve by the time I got the CD in my hands: low-quality cardboard for the cover, no lyrics, no liner notes to speak of).

The third surprise was reading that the new album would only feature her covers of songs from the 60s, both hits and obscure. This is something quite extraordinary for her, and here's why: not once, in her by now long career, I had the impression that Nellie McKay had a feel for the 60s, and not for reasons related to her age (she was born in 1982), but because her aesthetics - not forgetting, of course, that that language has been renovated and brought up-to-date, being now enriched with strong doses of funk and rap - is obviously rooted in the music of Broadway, musicals, Tin Pan Alley, "high quality entertainment" songs from the 40s and the 50s, and those decidedly "non rock" figures such as Doris Day, the US singer, movie actress and personality whose repertory Nellie McKay revisited on her album Normal As Blueberry Pie - A Tribute To Doris Day (2009), the first chapter of her new contract with Verve which came to an end the following year, after the release of her album Home Sweet Mobile Home. One can't help but notice that the first chapter of her new deal is, again, an album of covers.

Nellie McKay's first three albums - the extraordinary Get Away From Me (2004), the very good follow-up Pretty Little Head (2006), and the daring, experimental Obligatory Villagers (2007) - form a body of work that I never fail to mention every time I'm told that "nowadays there are no true talents anymore": possessing an original and versatile set of vocal cords, a considerable ability on a long list of musical instruments, and a rich compositional style, on her first album Nellie McKay made great use of the considerable technical skills and expertise of Geoff Emerick, the engineer who's part of the history of rock music for his contribution to several album by The Beatles (the sum provided by Sony to record the album didn't hurt).

Though it was sung with considerable humour in a light framework, the line "Should have signed with Verve instead of Sony" didn't exactly speak of idyllic times. She went her own way, with her third album, Obligatory Villagers, featuring strings and winds - also a spectacular recorded sound - as proof the she was quite able to make good use of a wider instrumental palette.

Given her inclination to adopt a "persona" in most of her songs, it's no surprise that Nellie McKay has acted in many plays for theater, some written by her, getting considerable praise from seasoned critics such as The New York Times' Stephen Holden. She also works quite a bit in New York venues that have "Cabaret", the most recent example being her engagement at the famous Café Carlyle with a show called Nellie With A "Z", which obviously alludes to Lisa Minnelli (Lisa With A "Z").

I'll be candid about it: Starting with her first album I've hoped that Nellie McKay would be adopted by a "rock" audience that could make her talent bloom, outside the comfortable but predictable dimension of places like the Carlyle. In the Woody Allen movie Hannah And Her Sisters there's a scene where the Woody Allen character takes the character portrayed by Dianne Wiest to the Café Carlyle. Here Diane Wiest sniffs cocaine, to Allen's embarrassment. "They're all embalmed!", is Wiest's reply to Allen's fears of being seen by those who sit at the Café. A scene that US jazz critic Francis Davis mentioned in his profile of Bobby Short, the Afro-American musician who at the time was a feature at the Café Carlyle.

What I'm trying to say, albeit in a roundabout way, is that her choice to act "in character" in her music, which in a way can be a source of freedom, can have its own specific set of problems, some of which are implicit in the "distancing effect" which can have a liberating effect for an artist, but that only permits a connection with one's audience that has a "mask" as its intermediate entity.

Taking into account my own fallibility, I'll say that in my opinion her album Home Sweet Mobile Home presented Nellie McKay as split between her usual repertory - which this time was not as fresh- and innovative-sounding as in the past - and songs that I'll call of a more "personal" nature: The Portal, Absolute Elsewhere, and album opening track Bruise On The Sky. Sure, it was quite strange to see Nellie McKay sound so dangerously close to "easy listening" - and, on Bruise On The Sky, to Avril Lavigne - but I saw those as her first steps in a new direction.

Then, nothing - at least when it comes to recorded music. Lotsa theater, of course. But how does theater connect with the sincerity of the 60s?

My Weekly Reader features covers of songs originally performed by very famous names such as The Kinks, The Beatles, Frank Zappa, and Crosby, Stills & Nash and by "cult" groups such as Country Joe And The Fish and Moby Grape; by "one hit wonder" such as The Cyrkle and by "psychedelic beat" groups such as The Small Faces; also by Alan Price, early Steve Miller Band, folk singer Richard Farińa, Gerry And The Pacemakers, and UK bizarre 60s group The Herman's Hermits.

I had fun making a list of names and songs I think Nellie McKay could have recorded alongside or in place of tracks that appear on the album. My first choice was Laura Nyro - polar opposites from her first album such as Wedding Bell Blues and Buy And Sell could have worked a treat. I also thought about Donovan - if hits like Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow can be said to suffer from over-familiarity there's the anti-Vietnam war hit To Susan On The West Coast Waiting. I found it funny that My Weekly Reader has no songs by The Mamas And The Papas - again, hits like Monday, Monday and California Dreamin' can be said to suffer from over-exposure, but I'd say songs such as Twelve-Thirty, Look Through My Window, and Somebody Groovy appear as being tailor-made for Nellie McKay.

Though I diligently applied myself to the task, I found no thread nor logic when it comes to the list of songs chosen for the album. The few short interviews I caught on the Net - we're quite far now from those apparitions at the David Letterman show and the like that were so common at the time Nellie McKay's first album was backed by Sony - didn't sound so different from a press release of the generic kind. It's obvious there's a mood of "going back to the first album": My Weekly Reader was co-produced by Geoff Emerick, who also recorded and mixed the music on the album. But Nellie McKay's debut album offered an original repertory, a fresh-sounding personality, and a mordant wit. "Writer's block" or the implicit acceptance that Nellie McKay's original material is a hard sell, My Weekly Reader suffers from too much variety, not every track being a jewel. The recorded sound is not bad, the backing trio - Bob Glaub sits on bass - works fine, Nellie McKay is featured on a long list of instruments, which she plays with verve and competence.

It's quite possible that some readers didn't like the expression "60s sincerity", which I used earlier. I could be more precise, and say that - with a few exceptions - the music of the 60s is not "self-reflective" (the opposite attitude being well represented by Andy Warhol). Sure, our post-modern beliefs and the ridicule that's reserved for words like "authentic" - let's remember what Simon Frith wrote about Bruce Springsteen - should be enough to make us avoid thinking about "sincerity" in its historical terms.

I'll just say this: For a long time I've noticed that while nobody really believes that an actor "is" the character s/he plays, a lot of people feel let-down if "the singer" is proven to be quite different from "the song". Let's remember those days when "Mick Jagger's life" as it was seen in public took away a lot of credibility from the way he performed those songs - a point of view that makes no sense outside the framework I outlined above. It goes without saying that nobody believed that Elton John was really an astronaut like the main character in his song Rocket Man ("She packed my bags last night, pre-flight/Zero hour nine a.m.). And nobody believed that when Frank Zappa sang "I'm a dancing fool" or "I'm Bobby Brown" he was really those people. But if we place our objects along a continuum it's easy to see that the "distancing effect" as perceived - a good for instance being Dagmar Krause's nasal voice singing a Peter Blegvad conundrum - is by itself an obstacle for one being fully involved on a personal level; here a good for instance is the Carole King-penned hit by James Taylor which goes: "When you're down and troubled/And you need some lovin' care". I've already written elsewhere that You've Got A Friend can be said to work as "an answer" to the disintegration of US traditional family, but this is just an added value.

It's my firm belief that, for reasons that are impossible to describe here, the concept of one's life as being a succession of masks - something which by itself makes it impossible for one to operate a distinction between "authentic" and "artificial" - has been replaced nowadays by a favourable attitude towards the concept of "authenticity" that sees the sequence of identities one inhabits in one's life as a process that has every identity as possessing a "relative" value when seen in the continuum, but an "absolute" value when seen inside a given time segment.

To put it in a nutshell, it's the end of the "Madonna model" and a return to the era of the singer/songwriter. Sure, it can be said that there are many reasons for this, but in my opinion the re-discovery of those historical names and the proliferation of new names that see that period as their blueprint for their work is a symptom of one's need to listen to a voice speaking - but one that doesn't speak from behind a mask.

It's at the intersection of opposite forces that the friction which underlies this album of songs is born: songs that inhabit a dimension where "forms" where not yet perceived as such are performed with a "theatrical" bent.

The result? Let's have a closer look.

Sunny Afternoon is the famous hit by The Kinks, also on their album Face To Face (1966). Here there's a fine vocal performance, and a lively piano, but I'm left unconvinced by the gender change (and "Give me two good reasons/Why I ought to stay" sounds strange here).

Quicksilver Girl takes us back to the Steve Miller Band in their "psychedelic" phase, on Sailor (1968). Fine bass by Bob Glaub, a dreamy atmosphere, the song is the ethereal portrait, so common at the time, of a girl (think: Ruby Tuesday), the vocal interpretation here being (surprisingly?) neutral.

A medley of two songs penned by Alan Price featured on the soundtrack to the movie O Lucky Man! comes to us from a bit later in time (1973). Poor People/Justice works, with marimba and a mariachi-tinged saxophone. The lyrics are bound to remind one of Randy Newman, also - maybe more appropriately - of the father of the "cynical song", Mose Allison.

Linked to Justice, Murder In My Heart For The Judge comes to us from the Moby Grape album Wow (1968). Here Nellie McKay's performance appears to me as being influenced by the attitude Dusty Springfield sports on Dusty In Memphis. There's a "disco" synth, a fine piano coda, and Bela Fleck's banjo.

Richard Farińa's Bold Marauder takes us back to the mid-60s folky days. This version doesn't sound too far from the original, but in my opinion the menacing cover by former Steppenwolf singer Johnny Kay that's featured on his solo album Forgotten Songs & Unsung Heroes (1972), and the tense-sounding cover featuring the harmonium sung by Kendra Smith on her album Five Ways Of Disappearing (1995) take to the surface the Evil that's somewhat implicit in the original version. Nellie McKay's cover sounds quite "theatrical", with a sense of "distance" that makes the menace appear less real.

A classic hit song by The Small Faces, at the time of its release Itchycoo Park (1967) offered an innovative use of "flanging" applied to a solo passage from the drums, created by ace sound engineer George Chkiantz. Nellie McKay's version is not bad, featuring acoustic guitar, organ, piano, bass, the "phasing" effect, and lively vocals. What's totally missing is the tension so present in Steve Marriott's vocals and the defiant spirit of lines such as "What did you do there?" "I got high!", and "I feel inclined to blow my mind", which illuminate with a special light the line "It's all too beautiful". Here, instead, it sounds like one is just having a joint on the grass.

It's quite funny to notice that one of the most "fake" song here is the one that sounds more "authentic". A #1 hit in the United States in 1965, the song Nellie McKay has chosen to sing is Mrs. Brown You've Got A Lovely Daughter by The Herman's Hermits, a group that once upon a time was a serious competitor of The Beatles. Here Nellie McKay's vocal performance duplicated the "British" pronunciation of group singer Peter Noone, himself a former actor. There's an ukelele, a marimba, the whole sounding just like a "show tune".

Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine comes from Electric Music For The Mind And Body, debut album (1967) by Country Joe And The Fish. This version is good, with an arrangement that successfully brings to mind the dialogue between organ and lead guitar that was one of the group's instrumental features. Fine bass, and - again - an echo of Dusty In Memphis, for a song which comes to us straight from the "negative portrait" category that was not so uncommon at the time (check, for instance, Amphetamine Annie by Canned Heat).

B-side of And I Love Her (1964), the Beatles' If I Fell gets covered in a two-vocals arrangement that's quite faithful to the original.

Bracketed by a fine harmonica that has to remind one of Bob Dylan, the US smash hit by The Cyrkle titled Red Rubber Ball immediately gives away the identity of one of its writers: Paul Simon. A fine song in the "folk rock" mode, Nellie McKay's version is nice, lively, con brio.

Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying was a hit for a group that once competed with The Beatles, Gerry And The Pacemakers. Nellie McKay's version is quite faithful to the melancholic and understated mood of the original (1965), with marimba, clarinet, ukelele, and "treated" vocals to fill the picture. Quite strange, this, at times I could hear the "comping" in the vocals. (US singer Rickie Lee Jones used to perform a very dramatic-sounding version of this song in concert, one fine for instance being the version featured on her album Live At Red Rocks, from 2001.)

Hungry Freaks Daddy comes from the debut album of Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention, Freak Out! (1966). This version is not bad, but it's totally devoid of the "abrasive" spirit of the original. To me, the guitar solo by Dweezil Zappa that appears at the end sounds out of place.

Appearing as the last track on the album, one of the undisputed classic songs of the "music from the West Coast": Wooden Ships, which originally appeared on the debut album by Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969). This is the songs that, in a way, was most drastically re-conceptualized. The trio's original version has a strong dramatic and "confrontational" connotation, which is even more apparent in the instrumentally brilliant studio performance by Jefferson Airplane featured on Volunteers (1969). Here we have marimba and clarinet, and - more important - multiple vocals that are given a round, smooth surface by the use of a plug-in, which strangely makes the dreaming atmosphere of this version quite appropriate for a movie end credits. It's as close to the original as the movie Inherent Vice is to the 60s, if you know what I mean.

One final note. Maybe due to her working in a theater production, Nellie McKay is not a "blonde" anymore, but a svelte "brunette". More important, her voice has now a shaky intonation in the lower notes, which is strange, given the fact that she is a non-smoker. Too many theater performances for a singer that has never been a belter?

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2015 | Apr. 17, 2015