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The brazen Nellie McKay that released Get Away From Me in 2004 doesn't seem to be going through a mid-twenties mellow-out phase. Her amusing stage banter about being undecided in who to vote for, the Austin bats and her half-joking relief that no one was eating BBQ in front of her (she's veggie), shows she's still packing politics dosed with wry humor under her sparkly red flapper dress. Beneath her trademark Peggy Lee and Doris Day exterior beats a heart that's more in tune with Margaret Cho and Ani DiFranco. It's a juxtaposition that no doubt fucks with a lot of people's expectations.
I myself went into the tiny room inside Stubb's BBQ on a Thursday night not sure what to expect. McKay is a critical darling and cult figure because of her ivory tickling genre bending, and I've been intrigued to see her live for a while. The crowd was compromised of her devoted fans and a few of us who were simply curious.
You have to admire McKay's no-compromise guts. After insisting on a double album for her debut, she parted ways with Columbia in 2006 following a well-documented dispute. As a result, Pretty Little Head, another double album, was eventually released on her own record label. Her latest, 2007's Obligatory Villagers, was a scaled back affair, and so was this performance - just McKay, a Kurzweil keyboard and occasional ukulele. Although the show itself was a collection of songs rather than the sonic journey I normally gravitate towards, I was won over by her unabashedly unique vibe.
Her versatile voice warms like Dusty Springfield's over the smoky, jazz-based numbers. But McKay is an actress as well as a musician, with an obvious appreciation for musical theater (she appeared in a 2006 Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera"), and character performance is quite strong in her vocals. Take Mother of Pearl," where she performed the peanut gallery commentary ("Sing us another one!") alongside her tongue-in-cheek lines about how feminists have a tumor on their funny bone." She plays a fiendishly deconstructive set of keys at times, throwing in odd bits of classical music and popular piano jingles as almost winking asides in the songs, sort of a parenthesis to the main line.
Lyrically, she's been compared to an off-kilter Cole Porter, or even Eminem. In cuts like Sari," the latter's rapid fire verbal spewing is there for sure, while Won't U Please B Nice" urges, If we part/ I'll eat your heart." Or take the divine Long and Lazy River" (maybe the personal highlight of the show for me). It's got a slightly meandering assonance that draws out the portrait of a relationship gone sour in some sweet little phrases:
Color me damned, Feeling petrified, yeah Tear up my plans leave me weather blight Guess it's past It's a flash from the other side Fading fast, goes the mast It's a better climb, all I had
It's a rare one who could follow-up a song like Pearl" with a straightly delivered Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)" (yes, the song from Mary Poppins), or carry out an authentically moving cover of A World Without Love and then a funk number that could have easily been a B-side to Monster Mash" called Zombie." Ultimately, I respect anyone who just follows their passions down whatever road they may lead, and it's obvious that McKay follows that sassy, brassy pit orchestra in her head.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.