Forget about pretty waif like creatures singing gentle soft glow lullabies at a piano, a la Norah Jones. This debut from Nellie McKay, while predominantly piano driven, is loud, strident, smooth, and about as self confident as it’s possible to be without being a pain in the arse. Here’s someone who’s not afraid to experiment, to speak boldly, to stir it up, but thankfully never at the expense of a tune.
Opening track David is jaunty, and wordy – almost to the point of being too clever (sample lyric “Mister Bush says, I’m your President, I have lots to say, hey, hey, hey, and click goes the remote, there you have my vote, catchin the next boat out”), but is saved by a beautiful and poignant chorus. This mix of punchy commentary along with a real emotional base is unstoppable.
McKay is the daughter of actress Robin Pappas, and grew up with a by-the-rules bohemian outlook. That she has turned her hand to songwriting, after attending Manhattan’s School of Music, might have you worrying about a bohemian brat born to stardom, and there’s certainly an air of precociousness involved in much of the record, but the album is so adventurous, at least in these banal days, that for 95% of the time you’re enthralled rather than suffering the smartest kid in the class.
Ding Dong could be Jane Birkin on acid, ruminating on the death of a dog and various drink/drug solutions. It could be Mother’s little helper done by Doris Day. It borders on the whimsy – but on the right side – and is the sort of thing a radio controller could end up adding to a playlist, only to be fired later when the lyrics come through.
The double album, produced by Geoff Emerick, who first shot to fame engineering for the Beatles, is a tad too long, as is perhaps to be expected. It’s a bold statement to make, but there are a number of songs, such as Clonie, that really don’t bring much to the table, and end up weakening the punch. Her great songs are really great, so why include what could charitably be described as ‘B-Sides’?
Lyrically shy is one thing that Ms McKay is not, and while she’s received comparisons to Eminem, they’re misplaced. The only connection that they have is a certain ryhming rhythm, and an anger. Her lyrical targets are far ranging and generally less self-absorbed than Mr Shady. Targets because lyrically, for the most part, the album balances between poking fun and harder pulling-the-piss. When it works it’s great – “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?”, from the much quoted Toto Dies – though, and it’s always going to be the danger with lyrics that seek to pack a punch, there are times when it doesn’t work: ”don’t wanna think about the schools in Bosnia
don’t wanna sing about food in Somalia
I don’t need this, I don’t see this
all I want is inner peace”, from inner peace which musically and lyrically is the closest cousin to Eminem on the record. Sure, we know there’s irony at play, but it ends up as blunt and self-important.
She’s at her most subversive on the crooning, ’40s style ballads such as Won’t u please be nice and I wanna get married, which ooze smoothness and yet move nice gal Doris Day from the quiet horrors of the 1940s to a feminist '90s where it’s o.k to sing about whatever a woman needs to sing about, rather than the baking of cakes.
Bold and beautiful, this is without doubt the debut of the year.