Nellie McKay: Pretty Little Head

Nellie McKay
Pretty Little Head
Hungry Mouse

Just a few years ago, when Sony scrambled to sign Nellie McKay, they inexplicably felt they had found their own Norah Jones. (Since when does Norah rap or crusade for animal rights?) Ultimately, they ended up releasing only her debut album, 2004’s brash but accomplished double-disc set, Get Away From Me. Then, in January of this year, Sony dropped the eccentric and talented songwriter. The label, you see, wished to issue Pretty Little Head as a single-CD, 16-track album. Nellie, however, insisted on 23 cuts spread over two discs (despite a total running time of just 64 minutes). Having reached a stalemate, McKay walked, deciding to go it on her own.

A mere 10 months later, McKay’s own label, Hungry Mouse, has released Pretty Little Head as it was originally intended. And it’s a pretty little package, with a 44-page pullout lyric book full of candid photos of Nellie at work and at play, all printed on recycled paper with soy ink. McKay comes out a winner, while Sony ends up looking fidgety and befuddled, the Grandpa Simpson of the music biz. This should hardly be surprising, though. They’re a vast corporation and, as almost inevitably follows, extremely conservative in their business practices. Sony’s a label built of round holes, and Nellie McKay is a square peg, if ever a peg there was.

She’s cute as a button, too, with a beguiling Doris Day innocence. But watch out, it’s a trap. That playful and mischievous smile conceals a girl with a deadly wit. Her intelligence shines with the same kind of razor’s gleam as Elvis Costello’s, slicing with joyful precision. She’s used this tool to extract a few of the Imposter’s better pop tricks, pasting them up alongside snippets and snapshots of early Tori Amos, Joe Jackson, Dusty Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Cole Porter, and a host of 20th century vocal pop girl singers and cabaret chanteuses. What you’ve got on your hands here is a sassy blonde sitting at her piano and rolling out spry, smart songs that pull at the thread of the history of pop music.

Candy-coated and a teensy bit tart, Pretty Little Head grows in delight with every bite. And oh how McKay loves to mix up the flavors. “There You Are in Me” follows the bloodline from mother through daughter, with bittersweetly twinkling piano melodies accompanying a low-key and rational dissection of a troubled home; the song then erupts into an alt-rock litany of fault-finding: “Selfish / Stupid / So self-serious” and “Upset / Inbred / White trash”, with surreal jabs such as “shellfish” and “fish eye” also bubbling up in the vitriolic bouillabaisse. “Columbia Is Bleeding” deftly shifts from music hall to a rollicking rant on animal experimentation at the titular university, and featuring this funny little scene: “Made a pass / Got hand slapped / Didn’t think to face the fact / That while he’s mackin on that ass / Columbia is bleeding.”

Don’t worry, though. Most of the album’s songs are not so bipolar. The opening ode to gay romance, “Cupcake”, takes the basic recipe of vintage Rickie Lee Jones and tops it off with a sugary dollop of 1950s teen-pop icing. “I Will Be There” is breezy and corpuscular jazz-pop, with Cuban drums keeping the rhythm tight over McKay’s Wurlitzer-like washes. Meanwhile, “The Down Low” slides into a sly and slinky groove, crisp piano chords chopping up the upbeats. It’s a little bit reggae, a little bit Kurt Weill, and all Nellie McKay.

Well, it’s not all Nellie on Pretty Little Head. Although most of the material finds McKay’s voice and keyboards up front in the mix, she is backed by a sympathetic rhythm section and a host of other musicians contributing parts on saxophone, Spanish guitar, harmonica, banjo, and more. Cyndi Lauper and k.d. lang also drop by to sing along. Of course, lang’s voice is as sumptuous as ever on the effortlessly catchy “we had it right” (lower case in tribute to her guest, i guess). Lauper co-wrote “Beecharmer” and, along with sharing vocal duties, is also credited with ukulele, trombone, and dulcimer. Who knew! Lauper and lang, genre-busting gals that they are, fit right in with the wide-reaching and studied approach of Nellie McKay.

In March of this year, McKay penned a New York Times review of Great Pretenders, a book about 1950s pop music, in which she displayed a deep and preternatural knowledge on her sonic heritage. McKay has parlayed this musical intelligence into undeniably sophisticated songwriting and production skills. Pretty Little Head is her sophomore album, but she shows the chops of a veteran. To be sure, her music has matured beyond the mere two years since Get Away From Me, which was almost sickeningly madcap in its shifting of stylistic gears. While elements of cabaret remain, this new album won’t make you feel as though you’re in a cabaret. Lyrically, too, the youthful petulance that popped up periodically on Get Away has mellowed into sharp critiques. McKay has focused her efforts, but without sacrificing her compelling personality.

Back in January, Sony’s 16-track version of Pretty Little Head made its rounds on the downloading circuit. It is that version of the record to which I have become accustomed. The difference between the aborted track listing and the official release we have today equates to seven songs and 15:45. What’s the skinny on this extra dollop of material? From the first disc, “Yodel”, “I’m Nothing”, and “Swept Away” are all charming ditties quite deserving of inclusion. At the end of disc two, however, some of the songs feel tossed on and more worthy of being saved for b-sides. “Lali Est Paresseux” is cute enough, but the French lyrics will keep most of us at an emotional arm’s reach. “Mama & Me” brings back the rap, an aspect of Get Away From Me I wasn’t missing at all. Delivered in rapid-fire monotone, the story of a single mom and her daughter making it on their own is more compelling on paper than on record. “Pounce”, about McKay’s cat-like attack on a former lover, is very frivolous (yes, she actually meows), but mercifully short. The album’s closer, “Old Enough”, though, is a very appealing tune with strong lyrics about that time in our early twenties when we first come to feel the weight of the years that are behind us and the decades of adulthood to come. This seems a fitting finale for a record by a woman of twenty-four, her life on the cusp.

So, the big question is this: Was Sony actually right? Would Pretty Little Head have been a tighter and more commercially viable album with seven fewer tracks? Quite possibly, yes. But I would rather see Nellie McKay indulge her creative impulses, accepting that a couple of misfires will accompany the many rewards of her untethered explorations. Despite the occasional wrong turn, this album is still a fun, frisky, fascinating, neo-classic pop journey. Even if you didn’t like her debut, and even if you downloaded those 16 tracks back in January, you owe it to yourself (and Nellie, I suppose) to plunk down the cash for the long-awaited, finally liberated, lavishly packaged, fully loaded, musically adventurous, altogether excellent Pretty Little Head.

RATING 8 / 10