[29 September 2010]
Nellie McKay championed the work of Doris Day on her last album, Normal as Blueberry Pie. Day’s reputation as a ditzy blonde virgin in a number of successful Hollywood films in the early ‘60s led many to forget her musical achievements during the previous two decades. McKay, who physically resembles Day and shares a passion for animal rights, revealed the depth and seriousness of Day’s musical talents by remaking the songs with imaginative arrangements and careful attention to detail. The album earned many best-of-the-year awards in 2009, including a place on the New York Times’ “Best Jazz Album” list.
One might have thought that McKay’s tribute to serious female musicians with a ditzy blonde image was over, but on the very first song of her new album Home Sweet Mobile Home, McKay refers to another lady whose reputation is sorely in need of reclaiming: Charo. Now reduced to guest appearances on television shows and cruise ship entertainment, the cuchi-cuchi girl was once an internationally recognizable star of stage and screen. Like Day, Charo is better known for her silly persona than her musicianship, but she studied classical guitar with Andres Segovia and was twice named “Best Flamenco Guitarist” by Guitar Player magazine.
McKay doesn’t say much about Charo on the song “Bruise”, but the younger artist just makes a subtle reference to the older performer and her smile. But it’s these kinds of knowing references that make McKay’s music so smart, subtle, and perceptive—plus she does it all with a smile and a wink.
Home Sweet Mobile Home is seriously fun and funny. McKay’s musical influences are all over the place, from reggae and ‘50s doo-wop to Broadway and swinging jazz to contemporary coffee house and funky New Orleans to modern rock and Caribbean styles, and everything in between. The bricolage effect removes the music from any one context into the realm of planet Nellie. She borrows from a diversity of genres to create pastiches that knowingly mock cultural and political conventions that value compliance and consistency over creativity. McKay zaps the consumerist cool kids and hipsters of the 21st century and employs humor to direct her barbs deeply into her targets: from the current state of liberty in the world to equality between the sexes, to the food we eat, to the homes we live in, and much, much more in a manner that often disguises the seriousness and depth of her genius.
McKay can drop a word or a line that devastates in its implications, while keeping the music lively. Consider “Unknown Reggae”, where the lilting beat and sunny presentation goes with vegan spirit of the lyrics: “Eating that burger / All you all-Americans / Eating that mother / Give the chef my compliments / Eating that torture / Yeah, you show such understanding.” McKay’s radical convictions are clear.
The diversity of styles, tones, and topics presented here reveal McKay’s obsession with the past, the personal, and the possibilities of the future. The total effect of the autobiographical “Please” is that of a Möbius strip that twists back on itself with philosophical insights and droll wit describing the tough life she had that shaped her into the person she is today. She begins by thanking the Lord for a “hard luck childhood,” then turns the other cheek and shows gratitude à la Oliver Twist to those in charge that profess to be merciful, while acting cruel and callous. Along the way, McKay appreciatively asks, “Please Mrs. Henry,” making an obscure reference to the mean master of Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes. She ends all this with a tongue-in-cheek thanks to Mr. Hula Hoop, equating this fictional character with the unreal, or at least non-interventionist, God with a sense of black humor. There is no one to thank, and why should she when her life sucked? However, she does this with a smile and a sense of absurdity. She’s not complaining. She sings and plays in a sweet manner as she continues to equate “college green” with “a lynching tree” as she understands that American history, like her biography, may be all messed up—the good and bad—but it is what it is and she is glad to exist in the here and now.
Most of the song titles here are one word: “Adios”, “Please”, “¡Bodega!”, “Dispossessed”, “Bluebird”. While the musical arrangements frequently border on the excessive as she goes from one style to the next, and often during the same song, she knows the importance of keeping the lyrics clear and simple to make her points. McKay may give you a smile like Charo, but don’t mistake the grin for a lack of seriousness. She conveys more with one word than most musicians do with a lexicon of language.