CD Review of Pretty Little Head by Nellie McKay

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Pretty Little Head
starstarhalf starno starno star Label: Black Dove
Released: 2006
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In 2004, my wife and I were on vacation in New York and we decided to catch Nellie McKay at a jazz festival held at Carnegie Hall, where she was opening for Lou Reed. Her first album, Get Away from Me, had just blown up and her career was looking as bright as can be. Anyway, she put on a spirited 30-minute set before giving way to Lou Reed. He proceeded to put us to sleep, ignoring a vast majority of his early work, so we ducked into a nearby bar for a few cocktails. A couple of hours later, we’re walking past Carnegie Hall again and, lo and behold, there’s Nellie – with a handler, presumably her mother/manager, Robin Pappas – sitting on one of the steps, changing from heels into tennis shoes. A little loopy from the energy of the city – and, of course, the booze – we introduce ourselves and, after a quick conversation, she explains that she’s waiting for her ride. For no apparent reason, we offer her one (even though we don’t have a car), and when she declines, we head our separate ways. The point of the story is that at that moment in time, Nellie McKay probably thought we were nutty. There’s some irony for you.

Fast forward to 2006 and McKay’s sophomore effort, Pretty Little Head, is finally being released a full year after its original release date due to a bitter battle with Columbia, her former label. The crux of the dispute was over the album’s length. McKay wanted to release a 23-track, 65-minute version while Columbia only wanted to release a 16-track, 48-minute version. Prior to the album’s original October 2005 release, Columbia went so far as to send out advance copies of the 16-track version to media outlets and reviews started to appear in both print and online publications. During a November show in Los Angeles, McKay railed against her label – talking about how corporations are “raping the world” – and gave out the personal email address of Columbia Chairman Will Botwin, asking fans to contact him about releasing the 23-track version. In December, Botwin was forced out in a Sony restructuring, and McKay was told her album wouldn’t be released by Columbia in any form and that she was no longer part of the label. Rumor has it that the label wasn’t pleased with McKay’s then-upcoming Broadway commitment infringing on her ability to promote the record. In a statement, she said, “It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why – they kept the coffee pot, I got the dog.”

But on to the music. The thing about her debut is, at the time, it was unlike anything I had ever heard. Musically, it was pretty straightforward – McKay at her piano, with good melodies over simple beats. Lyrically, it was complicated, witty and thought provoking. (The best example is her rap on “Sari.”) But Pretty Little Head strays somewhat from that formula – at least musically – including sketchy dance rhythms, intrusive backup vocals and even some (gasp!) keyboards. The transition is similar to Elton John’s in the late ‘70s. His best, most soulful work was from earlier in the decade, when his songs had a raw, boozy feel. Of course, what’s best is debatable, as is the quality of Pretty Little Head. Surely, those attracted to the poppy feel of McKay’s debut will find a lot to like, but those interested in her wry, kitschy approach may be turned off.

This writer falls into the latter category, but there are still a few highlights worth mentioning. The most infectious tune is “Beecharmer,” a surprising duet with Cyndi Lauper. McKay has a gorgeous voice, but it doesn’t seem to have a lot of range, so she lets Lauper hit the high notes during the chorus, “Is it something I said?” The opening rhythm of “The Down Low” is a little distracting, but the rest of the song sounds like something from her debut. While many artists are intent on rushing from the verse to the chorus, McKay is deft at making the bridge interesting. Listen for the line, “I see no reason you should” and you’ll get my meaning. “The Big One” is effective as an ode to Bruce Bailey, a family friend who died fighting for tenants’ rights in New York. The still-unsolved 1989 murder was the final straw that convinced McKay’s family to leave the city when she was ten. Finally, “Columbia Is Bleeding” is the standout on the second disc, which isn’t surprising as it is at least two years old. The song isn’t about her former record label – it’s a protest song about the animal testing at Columbia University.

McKay may be a little nutty, but I wouldn’t want her any other way. She can’t be blamed for wanting her album released in the longer format, but publicly railing against her record company and giving out the Chairman’s email address wasn’t the most tactful way of negotiating. It’s easy to root for such a free spirit, and ultimately the album was released her way, though all of the highlights were present in the original 16-track version. McKay got a little carried away in the production of Pretty Little Head – she should definitely leave the keyboards and drum machines to the neo-new wavers as those kinds of tricks reduce the impact of her wry, acerbic lyrics. But like no other album this year, the listener’s enjoyment will depend completely on their expectations going in.

~John Paulsen