- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

Entertainers with strong political beliefs walk a fine line, especially if they are pop singers. A bit of banter between songs is expected and usually bearable — sometimes even amusing — regardless of political leanings.

Singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco is renowned for this. The difference between the seasoned folkie and 21-year-old songstress Nellie McKay is that Miss DiFranco knows when to shut up and just sing.

Miss McKay should consider attending a few of Miss DiFranco’s legendary performances because — judging from her Sunday night performance at the Birchmere — she could use a few pointers on how to tone down the propaganda and focus on music.

The New York City native’s voice is as rich and smooth as a Starbucks double latte, and with her blond ponytail and thousand-watt grin, she’s as cute as a button. Miss McKay (pronounced Mc-Eye) hit the music scene with a bang early last year with the release of her debut double album, “Get Away From Me.” Hailed as a cross between Doris Day and Eminem, she delivered jazzy vocals and piano that struck a nerve with liberals who prefer their spokespeople singing instead of rapping and wrapped in a dress rather than a hoodie.

Miss McKay inspired headlines once again after being dropped from Columbia Records this month when negotiations over the length of her sophomore album, “Pretty Little Head,” went sour. The final blow came when she announced the personal e-mail address of Columbia Chairman Will Botwin to the audience at a fall show, urging fans to lobby the music tycoon to release an extended version of the album.

The sold-out Birchmere crowd was collectively on the edge of its seat when the sprightly chanteuse and her five-piece band took the stage. She kicked things off with “David,” the first track off “Get Away From Me,” and segued into “Cupcake,” the first track off her yet-to-be-released “Pretty Little Head.”

Miss McKay’s lengthy set list spanned her young career, and her poised piano-playing and clear-as-a-whistle voice clearly upstaged her band — that is, when she remembered her lyrics and musical cues. The crowd (and her band, certainly) remained patient, although her commentary — which spanned everything from animal rights to pornography — became tiresome.

It’s always illuminating when artists take time to explain the stories behind their lyrics, but Miss McKay’s razor-sharp and witty words speak for themselves; fans probably would have preferred to hear less talk and more of her beautiful voice.

Politics aside, it’s unquestionably fun to come across a pretty girl with a potty mouth, and in this respect, Miss McKay did not disappoint. As with Courtney Love or an accomplished class clown, you can’t wait to hear what she will pull off next.

The difference is that Miss Love is a train wreck; her career is over. Miss McKay’s has just begun. If she plays her cards right, she might just create headlines again — not for her stunts, but for her rare talent.

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