She Shoulda Called It "Black America"
I am about to say some very churlish things about a very good record by an incredibly talented young woman. I am not going to do this because I am some critical imp of the perverse; I am not doing this because I think it’s the cool thing to do; I am not doing this because I’m trying to warn you away from having this album. In fact, I will spend most of this review praising Nellie McKay‘s debut album, yea to the very skies above. But then I will say some things I haven’t heard anyone say about Get Away From Me: namely, that it’s not the second coming, that she’s got some work to do before she’s truly great instead of just interesting and fun and witty and catchy and kinda sexy in an extremely retro anti-sex sort of way.
Yeah, I’m gonna drop the Doris Day bomb. Everyone else does, McKay herself does, it’s hard to avoid when it’s as obvious as a zit on prom night: Day is one of her big role models. The most typical kind of Nellie McKay song is what you think of when you think about Doris Day: cabaret/film soundtrack style piano-driven Tin Pan Alley pop, with lovely lush arrangements and slightly subversive lyrics and a voice that’s not quite singing what you think it is. Plus there’s kind of a fascination with and recoiling from sex itself, combined with an intelligence and verve that is always automatically attractive. So yeah, I think it’s just a matter of time before Pillow Talk 2; maybe they can CGI Rock Hudson up from beyond the grave, it’ll be totally groovy.
“It’s a Pose” is the best place to start. It opens up “Side 2” of this double album (which could have easily fit on one compact disc, at only a bit over an hour, and is priced like a single record), and it’s the prototypical show-tunes Nellie McKay song. It’s about as close to genteel jump-blues as we’re going to get in 2004, with McKay’s barrelhouse piano amped way up in the mix and a full rowdy horn section and Cenovia Cummins’ very Stuff Smith-like fiddle wailing all over the track, and McKay’s blanket-statement cooing denouncement of “sensitive” guys as lurking rapists trying to get into her pants: “Trying to enjoy my readin’ / But you insist on interpretin’ text / Aw go on **** off I’m pleadin’ / Every sentence is a pretext for sex sex sex sex / God, you went to Oxford / Head still in your boxers / But you’re male so what should I expect?” (And yeah, the “****” is censored for us, so we don’t have to hear her swear. That’s so Doris!)
I’m not sure if she means this seriously; after all, she’s got songs indicating that she falls in (maybe mostly platonic) love with sensitive guys. Or, rather, one song: “David,” allegedly about her music teacher neighbor, an older guy with a girlfriend and therefore safe to crush on. This cabareggae song is the first one on Side 1, and it pretty much describes what it would be like to have this intelligent pain-in-the-butt girl obsess over you: “David don’t you hear me at all / David won’t you give me a call / Waitin’ here not making a sound / David come around”. Her words tumble around like shoes in the dryer, spill out of her id and into the songs she writes, it’s all very precious and adolescent and solipsistic and, quite often, very lovely and amazing.
Check “Toto Dies”, a sort-of-tango that turns into Sondheim for its choruses, a tale about being obsessed with modern life and pop culture to avoid thinking about the shitty state of the world: “Yeah I’ll have my coffee black / Hey look we’re bombing Iraq / Guess that’s the only way / Oh did I tell you we got Fifi spayed?” It’s a big fat mess of a song… but it describes a big fat mess of a world, and its slick Broadway textures pull against the pessimism and despair in a perfect way. The same can be said of “Manhattan Avenue,” an exquisitely phrased torch ballad about the joys of New York: “Send a breeze / A pitbull’s yelp / A tender squeeze / A cry for help”. “Respectable” is a spot-on 1970’s hey maaaan the system suuuuuucks AOR ballad, and its perfection as a piece of song (great xylophone fills by Ms. McKay!) overwhelms its ham-fisted lyrics and makes them charming and cool.
And then, of course, there’s the notorious rap tracks. Her attempts at rap are just that, attempts—she uses a popular music form without either embracing it or criticizing it. “Sari” gets a lot of attention, because its flow resembles Eminem (although it’s actually more like Princess Superstar, another mistress of rap irony), because of its completely ridiculous off-kilter tightrope-walk flow and because she spends the whole song apologizing for being a fuckup but then flipping it so that she makes her mistakes into holiness. But I prefer what she does on “Work Song”, where her flow is kind of like Twista’s and the track is spot-on Rickie Lee Jones: “And you turn and you toil / And you burn and you boil / In the tourniquet coil / Of the white folks’ soil”. She’s not really feeling these rap numbers, there’s a distance here from actually enjoying and understanding the music, but it’s okay, it’s a concept piece!
I’m actually intrigued by how often her biographies mention that she grew up partially in Harlem; it’s an attempt to give her music street cred that it doesn’t earn. She knows how “white” her rapping sounds, and the rest of her music is pretty overwhelmingly “white” as well… but she has no hesitation talking about that “white folks’ soil,” because she’s young and liberal (the “proud member of PETA” statement on the back of the CD gave her all the cred she needed with me). It’ll be interesting to see what she can do when her music is as interested in other cultures as her mind is. The rumor that she was going to call this album Black America is funny, but entirely inappropriate, as would have been her other titles, Penis Envy and Late Again. But she could use a little more black America in her music, and quickly.
But it’s caucasianally impeccable, the music here—she’s enlisted Geoff Emerick, who worked with the Beatles and on Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom and on some of the other fussy classics of modern pop music, and his meticulous arrangements help to rein her wild teenage energy in a little. Too much, actually, I’m afraid; “Waiter” and “Inner Peace” are overwhelmed by their sound tapestries, and some of the harder-edged pieces struggle for air. But overall this pairing is perfect, she gives him youth he gives her class, it’s a good combination. But I don’t think they should work together again.
Because I think Nellie McKay is just learning about the world now. She will grow out of some of her less attractive traits, like her concern-which-is-actually-contempt for the kind of 1950s married woman who comprised Doris Day’s main fan base in “I Wanna Get Married” (“I wanna be simple / And honest and dimpled / Cause I am your wife / I wanna get married / That’s why I was born”) or her tendency to fall back on the clichés she’s learned from old records (if I had a nickel for every time she mentions drinking gin, I’d be rich and she’d be in Betty Ford). And, while I hope she doesn’t grow out of these things too fast, I also want her to be a little less about Nellie McKay and a little more about the world.
Ultimately, that’s what sticks in my craw a little about this record: it’s all about her, and she’s found a way to be herself that doesn’t admit anyone else in. It’s all surface, is Get Away From Me, an interesting and inspired choice of album title that’s kind of a burn on Norah Jones comparisons but is actually pretty much a great description of these songs. They’re great, they really are, and fun to listen to—but once you hear a song, that’s all you’ll get out of it. Nothing here improves on further listenings, there are no hidden depths, there is no second-listen “oh shit!” or “wow, so that’s what that song is about,” what you hear is what you get. She admits things like sexual ambiguity casually, then skips away from them and on to the next topic, don’t worry, didn’t really mean it, move along, nothing to see here.
I understand this way of keeping the world away, I do this too, if I made music and was an intense and precocious and talented teenager with a record contract and a winning way with the press and a well-thumbed thesaurus this would be the album I made. But it wouldn’t be great, and this is only great in the context of being very surprisingly good. But McKay runs the risk of stalling out at “adorably wacky” instead of actually meaning anything at all, or rewarding multiple listens with something more. As it is, I don’t feel the need to pop these discs in for any other reason than their shiny surfaces.
But they’re pretty ****ing shiny, as textures go.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.