When Nellie McKay, a formidable pianist, singer, and songwriter, makes one of her special projects (I suppose all her projects are special, but I mean her albums of non-original material), as is increasingly her wont, one thing’s for certain; she’s going to do it her way. Like Normal As Blueberry Pie (Verve, 2009) and its Doris Day covers or My Weekly Reader (429 Records, 2015) and its take on 1960s pop, Sister Orchid is not your average rocker’s side project. It has nothing in common with Rod Stewart’s grizzly Great American Songbook series. Instead of being showered in glitter and pizzazz, it’s as if the listener has caught McKay unawares as she plays and sings solely for herself and her memories, late at night, alone at an upright (with one or two electric keyboards close by), perhaps in someone else’s house, with no lights on. Although some find McKay’s singing competent but slack, off-the-cuff and uninvolved, it’s just as easily heard as intimate and unselfconscious. Here and there, it carries a trace of Blossom Dearie, but it’s less flossy, less coquettish, less birdlike. Sister Orchid is a solo album in the fullest sense of the word, performed without the benefit of any additional musicians.
It’s been a strange old ride for McKay since she emerged with the double album, Get Away From Me in 2004, making a big splash in the press but not selling the number of units anticipated. Perhaps she could have stuck it out with Sony, for whom she made that one brilliant and bratty epic. But instead, she went her own way when there were disagreements about the followup (another double album). She wasn’t one for compromise. Obligatory Villagers, her slight but spunky one-off for Vanguard, followed in 2007. It was a kind of mini-musical/rock-opera/jazz revue without an overarching story, immensely enjoyable nonetheless. Her last collection of originals was eight years ago. It flirted with rock instrumentation and was called Home Sweet Mobile Home (Verve, 2010).
It was inevitable that she’d eventually turn her hand to the very music that has always informed her songwriting. On her first album, with “I Wanna Get Married” and “Manhattan Avenue”, she revealed a talent for writing extremely competent, well-structured pastiches, the latter song recalling Laura Nyro, another underrated Manhattanite, and her 1966 track, “Buy and Sell”.
Sister Orchid‘s front cover is tricked out with all the requisite retro touches; the ‘Stereo’ logo and the ‘High Fidelity Audio Recording’ strap-line, but these are new arrangements. “My Romance”, the Rodgers and Hart standard, features electric keyboards and is given a light, fairground-style, oom-pah-pah treatment, wrenching it out of its usual, stately 4/4 time signature and into a brisk waltz, with spectral backing vocals. It’s almost as though McKay, echoing the meringue-light singing style of Margo Guryan, isn’t unduly bothered by the sentiments being expressed or is singing them from the vantage point of someone who once felt them wholeheartedly but has since moved on.
“Angel Eyes”, in a simple piano/vocal arrangement, is woozier than the Sinatra adaptation. McKay sings as if drifting into a private reverie, unaware of being recorded. Some of the pathos of Sinatra (and, indeed, Ella Fitzgerald) is lost, but something else is gained. For a song that pinpoints the most excruciating and emotionally exacting after-effects of lost love, it’s given a rather drunken performance, as if the broken-hearted narrator has numbed herself to get through the ordeal. It’s a novel way of approaching the song, and it works.
“Small Day Tomorrow” is, of course, from the pen of the late Bob Dorough, the cool-jazz star-guest on McKay’s Obligatory Villagers whose material is a natural fit for her. McKay then pulls a rabbit out of the hat with “Willow Weep For Me”, a highlight of the album, where her approach pays off. It’s arranged in alternating movements, one languid and sleepy, the other full of whirlwind energy, and is a triumph.
From there on out, it’s a mixed bag. “Everything Happens to Me” comes with piano treated to sound like it’s at the far end of a room, plus overdubbed nightclub chatter and clinking glasses. “The Nearness of You”, “Georgia on My Mind”, and “In a Sentimental Mood”, however, give the impression that what we’re listening to is a recital or rehearsal as opposed to a performance. The palette of tones, moods, and textures reveals itself to be limited, perhaps by design. It’s refreshing that McKay doesn’t showboat or overact; in fact, it’s one of the ways she stood out in the pop landscape when her first album was released. But, here, she can sometimes sound so laidback you want to check her pulse. A phony, synth-generated woodwind sound undermines “Sentimental”, as do the lounge-act ARP strings. After turning in credible takes on “Where Or When” and “Lazybones”, McKay concludes the album with a “My Romance” reprise, this time in a more sedate arrangement.
Its drawbacks don’t prevent Sister Orchid from being a success. One of the great things about Nellie McKay is her confidence and the fact that she doesn’t record in order to ingratiate herself with critics. She unlikely cares if her arrangements of these songs meet with approval. We can come along for the ride or not. As a whole, Sister Orchid succeeds. It achieves what McKay presumably set out to do – to present these well-known songs in a fresh and inventive way. It hangs together as an entity. If there can be said to be one narrator telling a story, it’s a protagonist in a state of medicated detachment, suffering a strange brokenness, slightly delusional, rattling around a house after midnight, singing of what was rather than what is. McKay understands that respecting these songs doesn’t mean treating them as museum pieces, to be arranged and recorded exactly as they were way back when. If anything, that approach (the one favoured by pop stars like Robbie Williams) demeans the material.
Sister Orchid does leave one wondering if a more exciting album might have been made had McKay set herself the task of penning ten new songs in pre-rock styles instead of interpreting existing ones, a challenge she’d most certainly have been up to. Still, we need someone to keep this material alive without presenting it as novelty side-project or gimmick music, and McKay is definitely the woman for that job. Sister Orchid evokes dusty rooms, old photograph albums with fraying, yellowed sepia prints, ghosts, inebriation, faded beauty, and heartache. Throughout, McKay eschews big displays of emotion, and there’s no hamming-it-up. It’s her first set to get a vinyl release – surely the most appropriate way to let it haunt you.