Saturday, November 21, 2009

Nellie McKay: The Complete Musical Package

Nellie McKay (pronounced Ma-kye) has all the trapping of what's regularly called "a gay icon". She has a high-pitched voice that on certain notes is eerily reminiscent of Blossom Dearie and immediately puts you in mind of Betty Boop. Her appearance is often decidedly retro.

She writes eccentric lyrics, as in a song about answering the door when you're sloshed because your cat died ("Ding Dong") or the following about performing at a gay club.


Saturday night in the men's ensemble dressing room
Watchin' the fight in the men's ensemble lair
You may escape the cage
But then you have to share a stage, and tell 'em I'll be there
(It's Saturday night)

And now back to our new high school
And they got me wrong
Yeah, they got me wrong again

And although you're all talentless fools
Can't we get along
Can't we get along, my friends

I got to be free
I got to for me
And if you can't see, well, that's enough
That's all that I need to see you're all insecure, pedicured f**cks
(It's Saturday night)

(It's Saturday night)
And now's the time to vindicate
Tomorrow's just a matinee
And then we settle scores
(It's Saturday night)

She has dueted with Cyndi Lauper.

I suppose if you're cynical, you'd say that she's courted her demographic.

But there's another demographic she appeals to: anyone who loves jazz singing and smart lyrics. Witness a late night TV appearance on YouTube, and you instantly understand why fans of Dave Frishberg or Bob Dorough would take to her immediately.

NPR, on its "Project Song" series, explores the creative process for songwriters, and Nellie McKay's session with host Bob Boilen is a wonder to behold. Try carving out the time to enjoy it.

Anyway, it's clear that she is a phenomenon, like Melody Gardot. Blonde and lovely like her and a jazz singing/songwriting prodigy. Any song she writes is sure to include clever language play, often choosng just the write word for its meaning and musicality.


Just pour me a drink
Cuz I need a lie
I don't wanna think
I just wanna die

David don't you hear me at all
David don't you hear through the wall
Waitin' here not makin' a sound
David come around

Chaos pervades the world outside
Days offer spades of hurled outcries
Gone is the fair and five and dime
But he is there
He's so fine

Listen to her play
Has somethin' to say
Even has a rap
Clap clap clap
But click there goes the lid
Sorry 'bout the fib
I ain't got a grip on nothin'

Nellie McKay is a very funny person, but in her music she explores her darker moods. It ain't easy loving musical styles from yesteryear, wearing antique fashions, and playing multiple instruments (piano, ukuele, cello) at a young age. It's a recipe for an outsider.

"Real Life"

Cause if I had a real life
I could break the rules
And maybe feel life
Instead of foolish
As if I had a real life
Not a cruel and choking false reality

Nellie is a vegan and a political activist. This gal will not be pigeon-holed! Take this song about war.

"Toto Dies"

Yeah I'll have my coffee black
Hey look we're bombing Iraq
I guess that's the only way
Oh did I tell you we got Fifi spayed?
And when they get to work they hear drums
The boom fills all the empty space
They file papers lada-dee-dum
Trimming their shoebox with lace

Oh-ee-oh but there's somethin' a growin'
Oh-ee-oh through the bustle and hiss
Oh-ee-oh fuck the lawns that need mowin'
Oh-ee-oh there is somethin' amiss
Oh-ee-oh oh-ee-oh oh-ee-oh

Like most vegans, in addition to becoming one for environmental reasons, she chose to be one because she loves animals. Consider the following song.

"The Dog Song"

My life was tragic and sad
Yeah I was the archetypal loser
I was a pageant gone bad
Then there was you on time
And wagging your tail
In the cutest mime
And you was in jail
I said woof, be mine
And you gave a wail
And then I was no longer alone
And I was no more a boozer
We'll make the happiest home
And I said lord I'm happy
'cause I'm just a walkin' my dog
Singin' my song
Strollin' along
It's just me and my dog
Catchin' some sun
We can't go wrong
'cause I don't care 'bout your hatin' and your doubt
And I don't care what the politicians spout
If you need a companion
Well just go right to the pound
And find yourself a hound
And make that doggie proud
'cause that's what it's all about
That's what it's all about
That's what it's all abow-wow-wow-wout
That's what it's all about

Given this background, it's not surprising that Nellie's road led to Doris Day. Her latest release (Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day) is the reason that I've fallen in love with her music.

First of all, this CD does not dip into the familiar suspects for a Doris Day tribute. No "Que Sera Sera" or "It's Magic" here. Instead Nellie chooses Doris Day vocal renderings that speak to her and inspire her. So, once again, a listener is treated to the well-worn standards like "Sentimental Journey", "The Very Thought of You", and "Mean to Me". Her take on these songs is refreshing: sprinkling organ, synthesizer, and tympani certainly helps. Witness the use of her ukulele on Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Meditation".

What's terrific is that she broadens the tribute to take in great songs I've never heard before. There's Bacharach and David's "Send Me No Flowers"; Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Wonderful Guy"; Johnny Mercer's "Dig It"; and "Black Hills of Dakota" (hauntingly delivered with just a drums).

Then there's Nellie's take on some lesser-known Gershwin ("Do, Do, Do") and "Crazy Rhythm" (which sounds like Gershwin, but isn't). I've been playing this CD repeatedly in the car, and I can testify that my 7-year old has taken to these songs!

You really should buy this CD rather than download it. The booklet's design is such fun to look at. It harkens to the 1950s, and features Nellie in a variety of couture from the period. Get this gal a guest appearance on Mad Men! Also included are quotes from prominent writers and thinkers on animals and vegetarianism. Plus there's the most delightful dog.

You'll also be reaching for the booklet regularly to figure out what instruments you're hearing in a song. Her musical skill and creativity is truly breathtaking.

I hope you'll take the time to navigate my links and fall in love with Nellie--and with the great Doris Day.

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