Pretty Little Head
was about two years ago that (not exactly by chance: friends I hold in
high esteem having suggested that I listen to her) I got to know Nellie
McKay (first of all, her colorful character - something we always have
to consider as being closely linked to her incredible talent). I have to
confess I felt that subtle and pleasant sense of wonder that one experiences
whenever one is in front of an "unknown quantity" - an expression
by which I do not mean "an unknown name" but something more along
the lines of "where the heck does she come from, anyway?". I
still remember the cover of the Culture supplement of the Sunday Times:
platinum-blonde hair, long red dress, the young lady (said to be about
nineteen) appeared as having stepped out of a Hollywood
"sophisticated comedy" from the Forties. Beyond the facile publicity
slogan ("Doris Day meets Eminem", wow!), it could have been something
in bad taste destined to a very brief kind of fame, but her biography and
a couple of interviews I read seemed to point to a strong personality, somebody
who had really paid her dues (something that's quite uncommon, these days),
with a strong attention (a sign of being adult well past her age, this) for
the cultural signifiers of the musical forms and for the way musicians "show
themselves"; last but not least, also a clear refusal of the "teen
sex" dimension which has been one of the prevailing types of music (?)
styles of the past decade.
was her talent (she's an assured and versatile singer, an agile multi-instrumentalist,
a mature writer of both music and words) that made it impossible for her
debut album, Get Away From Me, to collapse under the weight of its ambitions;
a lesser talent would have made the album sound totally ridiculous: can
you really imagine a (successful) mix of 40s jazz, Broadway musicals, rap,
bossa nova and so on? Very rich narratives, a stimulating kind of singing "in
character" (something that reminded this listener of the more caustic
side of Randy Newman), a very clear "socio-politic"
perspective. (A highly perceptive friend of mine wrote to me in order to
underline the "friction" that existed between the particular history
of some musical genres that were featured in her album and the
"message" they put forth in this particular instance.) I still
haven't mentioned former Beatles' engineer Geoff Emerick, who did an excellent
job in producing an engineering the album.
become familiar with the album (whose beauty and depth have not been diminished
by the time elapsed since its release date) my curiosity was all about
McKay's future: would she grow as an artist? what about her commercial
success? what if the usual compromises would be offered by the usual record
company men? Already Get Away From Me had seen the label refusing to release
the one hour long album as two CDs, McKay herself forking the money necessary
for the released version to appear in that form. I could only knock on
wood, and wait.
had already reserved a copy of her yet-unreleased new album - there had
been a few reviews Made in the U.S.A. - when the announcement I so feared
was made known: no more release, no more contract. It goes without saying
that the rumour factory went full blast. This much is clear: confronted
with a replica of the first album - one hour, two CDs - the label prepared
a single-CD version with 16 tracks instead of the 23 the artist had prepared.
The "short version" was the one that was reviewed in the press
- and immediately leaked on the Internet. Now we know the rest of the story:
Nellie McKay has released the album the way she originally saw it, via
her new independent label.
to Pretty Little Head in the artist-approved edition it's quite easy to
see the way it differs from the one assembled by her former record company:
McKay's self-portrait features a series of "sonic vignettes" (they
are mostly on the second CD) that to a commercially-minded point of view
could appear as bizarre and potentially disruptive of the listeners' enjoyment
of the album. For this writer, some of these tracks (for instance, Food)
will not become part of a list of favourite McKay songs, but other tracks
(Lali Est Paresseux, Pounce) possess a beautiful grace, while titles like
Swept Away and Old Enough appear as opening quite different narrative possibilities
for her. (That a record company and an artist can part ways for such reasons
remains a mystery to me.) But now we have to go back a bit.
first album had brought Geoff Emerick, strings and winds, seventy-two tracks
of analogue, rich arrangements, compressed vocals à la Beatles and a nice
budget. Dunno whether it's true, but I've read about Get Away From Me selling
140.000 copies. The new album could not be more different. Already a co-producer
on her first album, where she also did the arranging, Nellie McKay has
produced and arranged Pretty Little Head in a smaller studio, Lofish Productions
in New York, which I imagine to be based on a digital platform but still
possessing a real piano and a room where one can record a live band. I
have to confess I'm not familiar with any of the musicians, save drummer
Ray Marchica (whose work I had happened to enjoy on an album by Ed Palermo
featuring his arrangements of material by Frank Zappa) and two "special
guests", singers we'll meet in a short while.
has chosen an approach that I imagine to be quite similar to her live concerts,
with nice keyboards, a pulsing rhythm section, plus layered vocals. We
still have the polystylistic approach of her first album, with the exception
of the rap element, here only on Mama & Me (I can't really understand
the reason why some of my US colleagues have adopted a dismissive attitude
towards this track). I found McKay's producing approach for Pretty Little
Head to be fresh and communicative. I also believe McKay's studio vocals
on this album to be more authoritative than in the past.
opening track is the joyous Cupcake, which is followed by the very
"60s-sounding soundtrack-like" (is that really a sitar?) Pink Chandelier.
There You Are In Me is a classic track, enigmatic and multi-thematic with
a vocal presence by turn delicate and massive. Yodel works as a light interlude.
The Big One (which - I don't really know why - reminded me of What's Going
On) has a strong rhythmic figure and a very good bridge. The melancholy-filled
G.E.S. is followed by the Sixties-lounge of I Will Be There, with its agile
quasi-Hammond and delicate chorus. The "morality tale"
The Down Low is one of those tracks that one can't possibly take out of one's
head, with a light bridge sporting a tambourine. The 40s are back in Long
And Lazy River, where the drums are played using the brushes. The sad and
quiet I Am Nothing has a nice cello. The beautiful closing track, Swept Away,
is preceded by Beecharmer, an exhilarating duo with Cyndi Lauper (!) which
brings to the mind Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, her world-famous hit from the
80s; it's nice to listen to the musical rapport the two musician have in
a track that could (potentially) be a Top 10 hit.
the first CD offers a track sequencing that's practically perfect, the
second CD is definitely less than the sum of its (considerable) parts,
due to an excess of variety. Which doesn't imply there are not many quite
brilliant moments. The excellent Real Life opens, sporting a nice piano
solo by McKay. Tipperary sounds convincing, even though I had the feeling
I was missing some important historical/musical reference, and the same
is true of the following track, the beautiful Gladd. Food is a light moment
that I doubt will survive repeated listening. We Had It Right is the other
duet, this time with k.d. lang: it's a mix of c&w ballad, reggae and
Gregorian chant. The tense Columbia Is Bleeding is for me one of the high
points of the whole album - check McKay's bravura in portraying all the
various characters of this intricate narration, a bit like a sinister cartoon.
Lali Est Paresseux is light and melancholic at the same time, and the same
is true of Happy Flower. As closing tracks we have the sad-rap Mama & Me,
the brief and facetious Pounce and the beautiful Old Enough.
a few reviews I've read are a bit on the tepid side (at least in the USA,
since Italy had already answered the non-release of the previous CD with
a roaring silence - but don't they always say they go looking for all things
strange and original up to the Pole?), it would be easy for me to remind
readers of the quite near end-of-year festivities, and of how we all need
to buy some gifts for our loved ones. More seriously, I was talking to
a friend of mine, just a few days ago, and we came to the real paradox
of this album: that it's so full of music that's so "simple" to
listen to, but that appreciating it is not so "simple" at all.
Beppe Colli 2006
CloudsandClocks.net | Nov.