Sunday, February 29, 2004

In person, Nellie McKay isn’t nearly as tough and tart as she comes across on her recently released debut album. At The Barns of Wolf Trap last Wednesday, Miss McKay (pronounced to rhyme with “eye”) was elegantly dressed and endearingly nervous.

“I would talk to you,” she said to the curious, twice-her-age audience, “but I’m scared of you.”

This was no bad thing. Charming, in fact.

On “Get Away From Me” — the title itself a gratuitous swipe at Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” — the New Yorker is a bundle of scatterbrained swagger, sniping at the opposite sex in multiple musical vocabularies: hip-hop, cabaret, jazz-pop, music-hall, Broadway.

As her songs tell it, she’s more embittered, more caustic than you’d think possible of an attractive, unusually talented woman all of 19 years old.

On Wednesday, playing solo grand piano, she was agreeable — even vulnerable.

And what about all the references she makes to the bottle? “I don’t really drink that much; I’m just posing,” she said, calling to mind her song “It’s a Pose,” which contains a lyric that’s as man-hating as Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.”

The thing about Nellie McKay, an ex-stand-up comic, is that she’s got humor, irony and imagination; bluster and brashness aren’t her style.

She threatened to “slit your throat” on “Won’t U Please B Nice” and taunted “Baby Watch Your Back” — but always with a kittenish wink and glint in her eye. (When she sang in Mandarin, German and Japanese, it was impossible to tell whom she was threatening.)

Miss McKay would never go Liza Minnelli on a wayward man. One doubts she’d even toss a drink in a guy’s face.

She’s too smart, too plotting, for that.

Verbosity is her weapon.

On “Sari,” “Inner Peace” and “Work Song,” she let fly an amphetamine stream of frenetic rhymes that you or I would fumble over trying to recite. Miss McKay spewed them out while playing complex figures on a concert instrument.

She’s a political junkie, too, attributing her lack of a prepared set list to pre-show CNN overconsumption.

On “David” — the one song she said was as sweet as it was bitter, “like dark chocolate” — she sang of clicking President Bush off the tube with “There, you have my vote.”

Perversely, she dedicated to homosexual couples in Massachusetts and San Francisco the song “I Wanna Get Married,” in which matrimony is described as a shallow, enervating arrangement for Danielle Steele-reading housewives.

“They look so radiant,” she commented. “I don’t understand why anyone would want to ruin that for them.”

Then why wish something as lousy as marriage on them?

Again, Miss McKay is more pose than polemic. Deep down, she’s got a soft spot for bourgeois normalcy, and on Wednesday she all but said so: “I wish I could be that happy,” she said of the Bay Area newlyweds.

The drawback of “Get Away From Me,” aside from its lack of discipline, is its seeming insincerity. Miss McKay, as brilliant a writer as she obviously is, seems to treat her music like a joke.

You wanna say: If she doesn’t care, then why should we?

Yet as a performer, Miss McKay is unafraid to expose her heart. She’s just a girl, trying to navigate life. And she’s a girl who likes food. A new song Wednesday contained this imperishably delightful line: “If life’s an illusion, then we might as well dine.”

“I’m gonna get some pizza,” Miss McKay said before exiting the stage.

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