If Nellie McKay’s previous records seemed to have been filtered to disguise her motivation and separate her intellect from that of her peers, then that’s a forgivably reasonable way for a multi-talented gal to resist easy labeling and retain control of the media image of her identity. Trouble was, all the clever angles and potential layers of irony were distracting. Case in point: did anyone actually care that the title of her first album was a twist on that of Norah Jones and Jane Monheit, or that she got to release a double album debut against the wishes of her record company? No matter, because on Normal as Blueberry Pie, McKay gets the balance between dazzling cuteness and solid musical chops just right, and she handles relatively unknown songs from Doris Day’s singing career (albeit with numbers from George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Johnny Mercer, and Antonio Carlos Jobim) with deep respect and good humor.
That respect is deserved, for Doris Day was an amazing, versatile talent. She was a prize-winning dancer from the age of six. Her parents divorced when she was 12, and she suffered a leg shattering car accident, too. By her mid-teens she was a sultry star swing vocalist with Bob Crosby’s band, when the competition consisted of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bob’s brother, some guy named Bing. Her voice was classy in texture, skillful in range, she could project intimacy to a crowded audience, and by her early 20s she recorded the classic (massive with the WWII GIs) hit “Sentimental Journey”. Day joined Les Brown’s band and continued to prosper until a second unsuccessful marriage brought her close to quitting music. A chance attendance at a party got her the role in the movie Romance on the High Seas, and she forged a new career in film, initially playing very different roles from that of the seemingly hermetically-sealed perky American girl she would play in late ’50s romantic comedies. Day did very well in Storm Warning and On Moonlight Bay, as well as The Pajama Game and the classic Hitchcock thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. Later, she would become the on-screen virgin that wholesome American males presumably wanted to do unwholesome things to before washing their hands; apparently a far cry from the sex icons Monroe and Mansfield, but probably a better actor and singer than both combined. Not to mention her later films, hit songs, and TV series.
Nellie McKay deserves credit for revisiting great songs in an irony-free manner. Normal as Blueberry Pie not only honors Day, but also shows how McKay adhering to a simple structure is the best way for her to, well, communicate intimacy to a huge audience. She is beautifully focused, the songs are excellent, and she more than does justice to them. Okay, there is some schmaltzy chitchat at the start of “Dig It”, but in that conversational context, it fits. One of McKay’s undoubted strengths is choosing the right instrumentation to provide contrast and allow her vocals to stand out. On that score, the steel drum intro to “I Remember You” and the plucked strings on “Meditation” are really excellent.
The track “Send Me No Flowers” sounds like a wonderfully breezy mid-’60s bitter-sweet romantic tale in song, and “Black Hills of Dakota” has lovely suffocating percussion, as if mimicking smoke signals or drums. The piece has a wonderfully mournful atmosphere appropriate for a lament set in a region that in reality is the site of one of the most shameful land grabs in US history, a long and sad tale of broken promises, desecration, and greed. Native American belief in this sacred site from which all life emerged were swept aside in a tide of gold mining, logging, and slippery legislative maneuvers that ignored the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. [See, for example, the decision Fools Crow v Gullet]. Alleged culprits range from General Custer, who died in 1876 at Little Bighorn, to Senator Tom Daschle, who remains at large.
What makes Normal as Blueberry Pie great is that Nellie McKay’s voice never sounds forced. It sounds as natural as cool water flowing over rocks. There are no showy vocal gymnastics, no over-emoting or over-heated faux sensuality; her voice just hangs beautifully — somewhere between a meringue and air. At times the effect is nothing short of magnificent, and she even seamlessly slips in an original of her own. Yet things start relatively badly with a somewhat ordinary opening track “The Very Thought of You”. For sure, the plinking and bongo accompaniment is great but there’s something in McKay’s voice which suggests that she never truly inhabits this ubiquitous song. It sounds like a cover. I expected things to continue downhill thereafter and for the album to be added to my personal list of Reasons Why Cover Versions Probably Be Banned. This list began years ago with Paul Young’s take on “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, a criminal abomination for which he should have been lambasted, pilloried, exiled, and then shot. Granted, we can all think of some great exceptions which either reveal a buried treasure (The Fall’s “I’m Going to Spain”) or transform the original (Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” and Mr. Hopkinson’s Computer’s “Fake Plastic Trees”), but these seem increasingly rare as witnessed by the recent inept usurping of Dark Side of the Moon (apparently by the Flaming Lips and the band of one of their roadies) and also the somewhat arrogant, unnecessary “tributes” by Beck and his deluded Record Club pals to Velvet Underground and Nico, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and Skip Spence’s Oar — which render me not so much speechless as psychotic. At least Brian Ferry had the grace to whistle on his version of “Jealous Guy”.
But some artists plainly feel (correctly, as it turns out) that people will pay just to recognize their voices doing any old tat, I mean, standards. Not me. I don’t want to hear Rod Stewart murder perfectly good songs with the camp remains of his former razor-blade roar. Tony Bennett still has a twinkle in his eye, but I don’t care to hear him take a stroll through terrain worn thin by over familiarity.
Never mind all that, though. McKay’s tribute to Doris Day is in a very different class. McKay is rumored to be planning some theatrical musical venture and remains something of a gorgeous mystery. Who else could treat Doris Day with such reverence, proclaim her own vegan preferences, and spoof a comment on future invasions of Iran: “We should have invaded them last week. Motherfuckers. I hope we continue our militaristic, capitalistic, fascist domination of the planet until it finally buckles under our iron grasp.” Go, Nellie.