CD Review of Obligatory Villagers by Nellie McKay
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Nellie McKay:
Obligatory Villagers

Reviewed by John Paulsen


n my review of Nellie McKay’s Pretty Little Head, I compared her foray into dance beats and keyboards to Elton John’s move to an overproduced, digital sound in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Though he still enjoyed regular success on the pop charts, the quality of his records took a serious downturn as he said goodbye to the ‘70s. Elton went on to release a duets album in 1993 and wrote the music for the Broadway musical “Adia” in 2000. McKay’s career seems to be a microcosm of Elton’s, in that her third release, Obligatory Villagers, features a number of duets and feels more like a Broadway musical than a rock album. The theatrical feel might have something to do with her role in the Broadway production of “The Threepenny Opera,” or the fact that she recently scored the movie-musical “The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom.”

Even though it’s quite short at nine tracks – eight, if you don’t count the 24-second “Livin” – fans of her debut will be happy with the warmer, analog sound of Villagers. Its surprising brevity is also a departure from the double-disc sprawl of her first two albums. (Let’s hope that the music industry as a whole moves to shorter, more frequent releases now that the CD is almost dead.) The dance beats are (mostly) gone, but the arrangements are far from simple. There are a host of jazz greats that showcase their talents, including a brief appearance by Phil Woods’ alto sax and Nancy Reed’s sultry vocals on the meandering, Latin-infused “Politan.” David Liebman (sax) and Bob Dorough (vocals) each appear on several tracks as well. Dorough’s pipes gives an aged feel to the record, and they just might give the hipsters something kitschy to grasp onto.

Musically, the songs coalesce pretty well. There are lots of horns, complicated arrangements and catchy choruses. Lyrically, McKay is all over the place (as usual). There’s the commentary on the close-mindedness of the conservative set (“Mother of Pearl”), the anti-conformist (and anti-education?) rant (“Identity Theft”), a description of Saturday night in the men’s ensemble dressing room (“Galleon”) and the story of a curse that rose out of the swamps of Mississippi (“Zombie”).

Confused? Me too.

But that’s McKay’s lot in life. Her mission is to challenge the listener with new musical styles and obtuse lyrics. The theater set will love Obligatory Villagers, while the rest of us will probably be left a little lukewarm. She can be frustrating, even irritating, but no matter how you feel about her last two albums, you have to appreciate the independence of McKay’s spirit.

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