It takes a Pa. village to nurture Nellie McKay’s new CD

[1 October 2007]

By Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

According to Nellie McKay, some musicians are as skillful with their instruments as the finest artists are with oil paints. “Me, I’m still doodling,” says the twentysomething cabaret-pop singer-songwriter only half-kiddingly. She then carries modesty a step further by comparing her own level of proficiency on piano and other instruments to finger painting.

Obviously, McKay’s appraisal of her talent is far too harsh. But ostensibly it is the reason why, for her third CD, “Obligatory Villagers,” the London-born, New York City-based performer tapped the jazz musicians in Pennsylvania’s Delaware Water Gap area who were her mentors when she attended Pocono Mountain High School in the late 1990s. (She graduated in 2000.) The disc, recorded at Red Rock Recording Studios in Saylorsburg, Pa., was released Sept. 25.

“I don’t know why it took me so long (to work with them),” says McKay (pronounced Mc-EYE), speaking while en route to a gig in Northampton, Mass. “These are some of the greatest musicians in the world. If anyone could make my tepid, lame, overreaching and uninspired songs sound like anything, these folk could.”

Heady praise for her accompanists, who include saxophonist Phil Woods, pianist David Liebman, guitarist Spencer Reed and singer Bob Dorough. And, to be sure, far too self-deprecating of her own contributions. But McKay is not one for half-measures.

As with her critically acclaimed 2004 double-disc debut, “Get Away From Me,” and her late 2006 sophomore disc, “Pretty Little Head,” a double-disc package delayed a year because of legal wrangling with Columbia Records and ultimately released on her own label, “Obligatory Villagers” is full of witty, provocative tunes that McKay stages in a musical theater of her own imagination.

Although she continues to cast a wide musical net, this time around her songs bite harder and are less bubbly.

“Mother of Pearl,” the puckish pop opener - and the song most in keeping with her earlier work - satirically picks apart the reasoning of those who say feminists have no sense of humor. It even has a mid-song ukulele-and-tap-shoes dance break and a closing swipe at presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich.

The breezy, needling, jazz-flecked “Gin Rummy” was inspired by the fate of former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The horn-fired reggae-spined “Identity Theft” castigates co-opters of hopes and freedom, while “Testify” brassily and dramatically snipes at mindless authority and uncritical thinking with jazzy/funky verve.

Questioned about the disc’s sometimes pugnacious mood, McKay responds, “Gallows humor often makes me laugh the most. ... If you’re going to make a joke, it may as well be an offensive one.”

Asked why “Obligatory Villagers” is a mere nine songs spread over 31 minutes, she answers playfully, “I guess I have nothing left to say.”

So how she will present “Obligatory Villagers” material on her tour?

“It’s just going to be me,” she says. “But if someone wants to play salt shakers on the table, they can play along. It’s all right with me.”

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