Young Manhattanite singer, songwriter and pianist Nellie McKay arrives in sepia tones for her third album, Obligatory Villagers. This old-fashioned cover art provides an accurate clue about the musical styles McKay mined in crafting this mad dash of a disc. Yes, you read that little article right. This release consists of only one CD, depriving us of our usual double dipping of Nellie for the first time ever. Given that fact, and a running time of just over 31 minutes, it’s difficult not to view Villagers as only half an album. But then we get ourselves mired in debates over quantity versus quality and art versus commerce. The bottom line should always be this: Do you like the music enough to shell out the dough?
I’m going to admit right up front that I don’t particularly like Obligatory Villagers. In a very obvious way, this is surprising. I freaking loved her last album, 2006’s excellent Pretty Little Head (my PopMatters review). This should make for a good predictor of my level of enthusiasm for this subsequent release, right? Not so much. I probably should have also kept in mind two other considerations: First, I hated her debut, 2004’s perky and rap-heavy Get Away from Me; second, McKay spent a chunk of 2006 acting in The Threepenny Opera on Broadway, and I also hate musical theater.
Unfortunately for me, the flavors of Broadway permeate Obligatory Villagers. Opening track “Mother of Pearl” is the kind of piano number where the spotlight isolates a single character on stage, allowing her a sung monologue (plus a soft shoe dance break — cute!). Lyrically, McKay makes light of how un-funny the concerns of feminism are, even while she attempts to poke fun at the notion that “feminists don’t have a sense of humor”(!). I was more inclined to believe that feminists do possess a funny bone before Nellie got all mock un-preachy (i.e., preachy) about child molestation, rape, and prostitution. Um, are we having fun yet? “Oversure” is a big, schizophrenic, brassy number filled with imagery that reels from classic songwriting homages (such as “blue as a mockingbird”) to surreally playful lines like, “Kittens high-hattin / Sittin on satin with a host who’s catnip fond”. “Livin” is a mercifully short Brechtian ditty about the scatological realities of, well, livin’. “Galleon” adds a disco beat and solos on guitar (cheesy) and sax (pretty darn good) to a ’70s-sounding rock opera piece about “Saturday night in the men’s ensemble dressing room”.
On the last three tracks, McKay (thankfully) veers away from the Broadway formula. “Politan” is a hushed and pretty Latin jazz-tinged ballad about suicidal ideation while stranded in paradise. The rousing and very catchy “Testify” revives the largely up-tempo mood of the album, as big band verses explode into gospel-based choruses (as one might expect from the title). Goofy album closer “Zombie” could be a slowly strutting Screamin’ Jay Hawkins number, except for the melodious singing of McKay and the pairing of a Halloweeny theme with some personal biography about her and her mother’s time spent in the American South. Happily, this fine little cluster of songs accounts for more than half the running time of the entire disc.
Throughout Obligatory Villagers, McKay pulls off lyrically what she doesn’t often accomplish musically: mixing the old with the new and creating a unique vocabulary. This isn’t to say that her music writing isn’t accomplished; it is. Her compositions and arrangements are all impressive, but they’re so tightly tethered to their inspirational sources that they offer little new to get excited about. So, despite the dexterity of her writing chops, this feels like a step backwards for McKay. These same sonic elements of musical theater were present on Pretty Little Head, but there she wove them into a series of adult-pop songs that resulted in a style all her own.
I have little doubt that McKay accomplished exactly what she set out to do here, but I also know that she’s lost at least one listener along the way, and I suspect I won’t be alone. I tried to find a new fan for Nellie in the person of my wife, seeing if the ears of a woman who likes the occasional musical would be more receptive to Obligatory Villagers. She wasn’t (after the first few tracks, she mentioned something about taking a cyanide capsule). But, hey, the audience shouldn’t direct the show. A musician ought to follow her own muse. I’m just sayin’, there’s gonna be some fallout. Nellie McKay’s album is exceedingly well crafted and performed, but I fear that, as the line from This Is Spinal Tap goes, she’ll be reaching “a more selective audience” this time around.