Friday, January 05, 2007

Music Review: Nellie McKay - Pretty Little Head

    There's a lotta things that I'm proud of in this world
    I got a pinch of Shirley Chisholm and a sprinkle of 'That Girl.'

    (“Mama & Me,” Pretty Little Head)
For sheer out-of-the gate gamut running, Get Away From Me, Nellie McKay’s dazzling and dizzying 2004 debut, displayed kaleidoscopic jazz-flavored pop smarts and well-wielded wit and wordplay embracing everything from cabaret, torch, biting hip-hop, and Doris Day-style dewy-eyed songcraft with a pinch of swing and a sprinkle of insincerity.

About all that didn’t get a try-out was yodeling, but McKay makes up for that oversight on her otherwise more uniform and long-delayed Pretty Little Head, which she ended up producing herself after a protracted dispute over direction and CD length led to Columbia letting her go. Releasing Pretty Little Head on her own Hungry Mouse label, a headstrong McKay showcases over two CDs 23 songs that, notwithstanding some diminishing returns, still put across an array of the expected eccentricities, self-effacing and acerbic quirks and vulnerabilities, and cause-related commentary.

But this time around, McKay, putting the first album’s precociousness behind her (when she was 19, or 21, depending on which conflicting facts you have at hand), has toned down the frenetic pace and constant pretty-little-head worry to an extent. Despite occasions in which someone is “coursing through my veins / Pulsing every pound / Panic on parade” (“I Am Nothing”), McKay realizes that she’s “supposed to have a laugh / And have a lot to say.” There's no cause for alarm, and after all, she sings languidly, “You’ve got a long and lazy river to your soul” (“Long and Lazy River”).

That may not be true for everyone, as the long and lazy river becomes at times a shallow tributary in which you’ll run aground. In the scathing “There You Are In Me,” McKay berates the “Selfish, stupid, so self-serious”:
    Every single thing will only bring another sad solution
    Every single hurt will only curse another substitution
    Everyone you meet secures a wretched seat within your memory
    Wipe their filthy feet upon the yearning of your soul
    There you are in me...

The activist spirit within McKay escapes the trappings of sloganeering heavy-handedness, whether or not you agree with her stances, by being conveyed in oblique language and subtle gradations. Satiric jabs and gentle sarcasm marks the salute to gay marriage in “Cupcake,” while the acidic incisiveness in “The Big One” addresses commercialism and tenant’s rights with the help of some traces of hip-hop vocalizing.

In addition, the gorgeously rendered “Gladd” honors peace activist Gladd Patterson, but “Columbia Is Bleeding,” about allegations of animal cruelty at Columbia University, is more barbed, the most caustic song on Pretty. Allusions to those who “Generalize, proselytize, verbs were spillin’ out their sides,” and deadpanned pretexts that “They're just animals / Make good edibles,” put across the message with mordant humor that is as pointed and consequential.

Overall, however, Pretty Little Head, which gets assistance on a couple tracks from k.d lang and Cyndi Lauper, is not as consequential, consistent or as risk-taking as the brash and bolder Get Away From Me. There are some undernourished songs, lyrically and musically, and at the other extreme the voiceover excess on "Mama & Me" should've been excised.

McKay’s production on Pretty, though promising, doesn't always sit pretty and is a bit gawky at times, though she did have a hard act to follow: Geoff Emerick, who worked with the Beatles, produced and engineered Get Away, an album I can listen to straight through and still be bedazzled by - song after song.

That doesn‘t seem to be the case with the slightly disappointing Pretty Little Head, and I’m beginning to see Columbia’s point of view that it should’ve been more cohesively pared down to 16 songs on one CD.

Then again, let me give that yodeling song another listen…