Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Nellie McKay

  • Get Away From Me [Columbia, 2004] A-
  • Pretty Little Head [Hungry Mouse, 2006] ***
  • Obligatory Villagers [Hungry Mouse, 2007] A-
  • Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day [Verve, 2009] A
  • My Weekly Reader [429, 2015] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Get Away From Me [Columbia, 2004]
Hidden smack in the middle of each of these two nine-track CDs are two forgettable songs, leaving 16 of 18 that are memorable melodically, lyrically, or both, which would be an accomplishment for Randy Newman himself. Not counting Stephin Merritt, no other under-40 approaches McKay's gift for cabaret. The worst you can say is that her satire is shallow--dissing yuppies in the '00s is the precise terminological equivalent of dissing hippies in the '80s. But "Work Song" (bosses), "Inner Peace" (New Ageism), "It's a Pose" ("God you went to Oxford/Head still in your boxers") feel something like classic, and personal notes like the fond "Manhattan Avenue" and the fonder "Dog Song" suggest that soon her egomania will yield emotional complexities worthy of her talent. A-

Pretty Little Head [Hungry Mouse, 2006]
Too much too soon, and also too late, a syndrome that cries out for professional advice ("Cupcake," "Food"). ***

Obligatory Villagers [Hungry Mouse, 2007]
In an antirockist moment when faerie folkies airier than Joanna Newsom and disco dollies emptier than Rihanna are thought to promise a braver, freer future, why isn't this manifestly hypertalented young person a generational hero? Couldn't have any connection, could it, to the fact that no fewer than three netcrits--all, as it happens, men--don't understand that the opening laugh line, "Feminists don't have a sense of humor," is the well-turned piece of satire that makes everyone I play it for giggle? I agree--she's scattered, unfinished, self-indulgent. But she's also ebullient, funny and political. Her future looks brave and free to me. A-

Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day [Verve, 2009]
Though I wish I believed McKay would have discovered Day if the 87-year-old box office queen hadn't devoted half her adult life to animal rights, the spritz, groove, sweetness and delight of this project not only raise Day from the shallow grave of the camp canon but give McKay a chance to grow up without going all sententious or stodgy. If by some mischance she's contracted the writer's block that can afflict kids who've spent years unable to staunch the river of new songs within--the only original is one of the few forgettables--then McKay has a future as an interpreter. At first the jazzy lightness of her arrangements seems like a distortion. But when you compare Day's "Crazy Rhythm" or "Do Do Do"--even the radio transcription of "Sentimental Journey" or a "Wonderful Guy" so much less brassy than Mary Martin's--you remember that like every Cincinnati girl of her era Day grew up with swing and probably resented the orchestral overkill she was saddled with. McKay's covers are jazzier and kookier than anything Day would have dared, or wanted. But to borrow language she's used for Day, they're "uncluttered, sensual and free, driven by an irrepressible will to live." A

My Weekly Reader [429, 2015]
Once the cabaret upstart was a golden faucet of song, but since she messed up her karma in 2007 by cracking a feminism joke that men didn't find cute, not to mention understand, the originals have dried up. So as cabaret stalwarts will, she's turned to Other People's Material. Having reimagined Doris Day in 2009, she ups the ante and reimagines the '60s in 2015. And from the sublime "Sunny Afternoon" and "If I Fell" to the ridiculous "Red Rubber Ball" and "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter," from the secret class politics of Alan Price and Moby Grape to the out-there freak politics of Frank Zappa and Jefferson Airplane, she manifests more historical grasp than any psych band yet to show its hand. Songs are so much easier to hold onto than acid visions you can only dream about. A-

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