Nellie McKay
Obligatory Villagers

(Hungry Mouse)

I think I'm right when I say that it was during the first days of August that I happened to know about a new, soon-to-be-released album by Nellie McKay. Title: Obligatory Villagers. Announced release date: September, 25. I immediately proceed to pre-order the CD. It was announced for the album to also go on sale in mp3 format and on iTunes: it is obvious that - while those alternatives would make for a faster delivery (and it goes without saying that I had no way to foresee the "wildcat strike" on the part of the Postal Service of the United Kingdom that would make for an even slower delivery of the CD); but it's also obvious that the high sonic quality of the new work - which I gave for granted - would be greatly compromised by the degree of compression that's typical of these formats. So I pre-ordered the CD, and then it was time for thinking.

The reviews I read - those that appeared at about the same time Obligatory Villagers was officially released - were few, and on the lukewarm side. The fact of them being just a few is easy to understand: McKay's debut, Get Away From Me (2004), produced by a prestigious name like Geoff Emerick, had been on Sony, whose publicity muscle had obviously worked wonders. Here was a colourful character, young of age, with facile catch-phrases ("Doris Day meets Eminem") ready to be used. Alas, the album - of great quality - did not shift as many copies as hoped. Though recorded while she was still with Sony, Pretty Little Head (2006) had been released by McKay herself. It's at this point that she made her Broadway debut in the famous The Threepenny Opera.

Sure, the disappearance of Sony and of easy "hooks" (one can only be nineteen once), plus the low number of copies she had sold, explained the fact that reviews were now just a few; still, it was not clear to me why those that appeared were so tepid. Some lamented the fact that the CD was on the short side, just 31 minutes long (short): quite strange, this, for an artist who had already released two long CDs; but quite a few writers had thought those very CDs to be on the long side, with stuff that would have been better left in the drawer. So? Most important: what about the instrumentation featured on the new album? Here, silence reigned: whether it was the Berliner Philharmonic or a platoon of jew's-harps that appeared on the album, this was a part of Obligatory Villagers that would remain a mystery till the moment I unwrapped my CD.

Let's start at the end: Obligatory Villagers is without a doubt an excellent album, one that's easily the equal to its much-lauded predecessors, one that easily shows a new maturity on McKay's part. Very well recorded, by the way: a bit on the loud side, but still very dynamic, it's not hyper-compressed, nor fatiguing; recording engineer Kent Heckman did a great job here, making it possible for us to fully appreciate all the shadings of the varied instrumentation. For this is the new aspect of this album: produced by Nellie McKay and Robin Pappas (her mother), Obligatory Villagers' compositions were skillfully arranged and orchestrated by McKay herself using an instrumental palette that's wide, stimulating and - for her - new.

Let's have a look at the instrumentation: Marko Marcinko, drums; Paul Rostock, bass; Spencer Reed, guitar; Ken Brader III, trumpet, flugelhorn; Jim Daniels, bass trombone, tuba; Tom Hamilton, baritone saxophone, tenor; Nelson Hill, alto saxophone, clarinet, flute, tenor; David Liebman, soprano saxophone, tenor; Cameron MacManus, trombone; plus, Phil Woods, alto saxophone; Bob Dorough, vocals. And let's not forget the uncredited string section (a string quartet appears on the left page of the inner spread of the CD cover) that's clearly audible on tracks 2, 6 and 8.

Bass guitar/double bass and drums come out as really versatile, wind instruments are good both in solo mode and as a section, McKay is a good arranger, both low (trombone, tuba, baritone) and high (trumpet, clarinet, and soprano), so the instruments are always in a good rapport with the vocals; she uses xylophone, glockenspiel and chimes more often than in the past, alongside piano and organ; the whole sounds tasty and coherent. As in the past, we also find some typical moves - certain descending phrases on the piano, a bossa which uses flute and acoustic classical guitar with nylon strings, some vocals - though they have yet to become mannerisms.

Thirty-two years after he played his famous solo on Doctor Wu by Steely Dan (it's on the album Katy Lied), Phil Woods plays quite well on Politan. Though he plays well throughout, David Liebman has a very fine moment on soprano in Galleon. The versatile Nelson Hill has a nice solo on alto in the track Testify, and also on tenor in the closing track, Zombie. Bob Dorough's voice - totally new to me - gets quite a lot of space, both in duo mode and as a kind of "commentator" (a Web search immediately revealed Borough as a very famous musician in the US.)

Many names already mentioned a propos of her previous albums, from Gershwin to Bernstein, to the soundtracks to many musicals, are still here. I'd say this time McKay has dressed her beautiful melodies - and her proverbial, often pungent, "sense of humour" - with instrumental colours that are really orchestral (while listening, sometimes I thought about Count Basie, Van Dyke Parks on the album Tokyo Rose, and Carla Bley in her Escalator Over The Hill - but let's be clear: these are only superficial similarities). And it was this new density in her work that made me think of its brevity as an appropriate choice.

The album starts with a classic opener, which works well as an introduction, and which for her could almost be considered as "business as usual": Mother Of Pearl is a typical piano composition with nice singing and a skeletal backing (piano, ukulele, bass, drums, plus spoken background vocals - and a tap dance solo!) which reminded me of I Wanna Get Married, on her first album.

But I think the album really starts with track #2, Oversure (a play on words for Overture?). It's a dense, multi-themed composition, with strings, winds, and vocals that's quite complex. Nice vocals by Bob Dorough in the second vocal theme, and nice baritone saxophone.

Gin Rummy starts with relaxed vocals, organ, drums played using brushes, double bass, later with a vocal attitude that's almost-rap with a muted trumpet in the background; a nice close for winds and glockenspiel which brings us straight to...

... Livin, a very brief track whose main function in the economy of the album appears to be of a structural kind.

Identity Theft is a classic move: almost rapping, with music that's a mix of calypso and a mariachi orchestra, with trumpet (obviously) in the foreground. The text looks full of quotes from many songs, and I'm proud to have spotted two: Yakety Yak, written in '58 by Leiber & Stoller for The Coasters; and Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash, from '56 (of course, my US colleagues will score higher). There's a very beautiful 3" long "splice" by the strings starting at 2' 06".

The martial attack of Galleon reminded me of musical comedies I used to watch on TV as a child, with flags on the aircraft-carrier, or secretaries marching in the offices. A nice track, with good vocals by Bob Dorough, a "disco" section with the hi-hat well in the foreground, and a nice soprano solo by David Liebman; a so-so solo on guitar.

Phil Woods's  alto sax is the star in Politan, a composition sung by the fine voices of McKay, Bob Dorough and Nancy Reed. It's a bossa with flute and nylon-string guitar. The track has an elegant organ backing the sax solo which for a moment reminded me of Carla Bley. Nice "call and response" between piano and alto at the end of the track.

Testify is a track that's quite complex, though it's quite easy on the ears. Heavy attack by the winds, nice melodic vocal development, a very good alto sax solo by Nelson Hill, a "disco with strings" mood which we already know McKay likes to have on her records, then a big finale, "Broadway-style", which reminded me a bit of the very famous song Let The Sunshine In, off the musical Hair. It's here, in my opinion, with a very apparent progression starting with track #2, that the album "ends".

In closing, the CD has a nice blues titled Zombie: double bass, drums played with brushes, a Wurlitzer electric piano, an organ (this one really sounds to me like a real Hammond B-3 with a Leslie 122 cabinet), a fine tenor saxophone, and many, many vocals. Here we have another excellent vocal performance by McKay, who in the course of the whole album sounds like she has developed and grown some more when it comes to her vocal assurance and her performing agility.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2007 | Oct. 18, 2007