Nellie McKay covers 13 golden nuggets from the ’60s on her latest release, My Weekly Reader. She brings together a weird group of songs that share little in common: well-respected pop rock by the Kinks and the Beatles, light confections by Paul Simon and Gerry and the Pacemakers, spirited psychedelica by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and the Steve Miller Band, freak folk by Richard and Mimi Farina and Crosby, Stills and Nash, the blues of Moby Grape and Country Joe McDonald and more. Discerning the reasons behind McKay’s choices is impossible to figure. My only guess is that McKay first heard these songs from her brainy mom’s record collection. That may or may not be true and in the end this really doesn’t matter. McKay’s new disc kicks serious butt.
McKay’s charismatic personality always makes her stand out, but her talents as player, singer and producer cannot be overstated. Her piano work may be especially noteworthy, but she also plays marimba, concertina, clarinet, ukulele, congas, and many other instruments to add rich layers to the instrumentals. She’s accompanied by Cary Park (acoustic, electric, 12-string and steel guitar; Bob Glaub (electric bass), and David Raven (drum), but handles the vocals. This can be beautifully heard on her rendition of Lennon/McCartney’s “If I Fell”. Not only does she sing John’s lead, but she adds her dubbed voice to create the Paul and George’s backup harmonies. The results are beautiful. Of course it helps that former Beatles’ producer Geoff Emerick co-produced My Weekly Reader.
Sometimes McKay makes changes to the original songs for effect. She frames Paul Simon’s “Red Rubber Ball” with harmonica solos stolen from the Bob Dylan harmonica songbook. Considering the feud these guys had in the ’60s (check out Simon & Garfunkel’s “A Simple Desultory Philippic” for a quick and humorous primer), this may be a misstep or a deliberate dig — or both. McKay has always been expert at satire. She know that the truer she is to the essence of what is being parodied, the sharper the sting. So when McKay sweetly croons Herman’s Hermits’ number one hit from 1965, “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”, she not only copies Peter Noone’s thick yawping British accent—she reveals the chauvinistic elements hiding in the love song that professes to switch the gender roles. “Mrs. Brown” concerns the sorrows of a man who was dumped rather than the more typical song of the era that has the man as the powerful one in the relationship. But in reality, the male narrator just doesn’t get it. “Girls as sharp as her are something rare”, he cluelessly says. McKay deliciously delivers the line with a candy coating.
And there are the improvisatory lyrics at the end of Moby Grape’s “Murder in My Hear for the Judge”. McKay proclaims everything from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence to Shakespeare to the vitriolic slogan “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucka” to the innocent protest of “What do we want? Time Travel. When do we want it? It’s irrelevant”, while special guest Bela Flecks plucks his banjo like a chicken. Anybody who’s ever had engagement with the judicial system understands McKay’s venting.
But mostly, McKay plays it neat. For example, she captures the insouciant innocence of Gerry and the Pacemakers, “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”. Love is just a game, as the song makes clear, and you can play again tomorrow. McKay’s take of the acid-laced “Itchycoo Park” by the Small Faces captures the sentiment accurately through her deft organ work and clear, ringing voice. Everything is beautiful if you see it with the proper eyes and the right friends.
Frank Zappa’s son Dweezil serves as the disc’s other special guest for his electric guitar playing on “Hungry Freaks, Daddy”. Dweezil does his father proud, but McKay steals the show on marimba and organ, plus her sneering vocals. McKay has always been a social activist, and this song again reveals her disgust at America’s injustice and against the disenfranchised. She also does a killer version of Alan Price’s “Poor People /Justice” medley that shares many of the same concerns.
The assortment of different tunes here suggests that McKay understands the complexity of the past and reveals her empathy for a more hopeful time when love and peace were fresh thoughts rather than a debased slogan. Like the elementary school magazine from which she took as the title to her album, the album offers a fresh and optimistic look at the world. She’s not reliving her childhood, but McKay’s educating her and future generations about the not-so-distant past when life seemed more open to possibilities.