Nellie McKay: My Weekly Reader

The assortment of different tunes here suggests 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.

Nellie Mckay

My Weekly Reader

Label: 429
US Release Date: 2015-03-24
UK Release Date: 2015-03-25

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.







Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.