- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2006

Nellie McKay

Pretty Little Head

Hungry Mouse

At long last, Nellie McKay got to release the “Pretty Little Head” that she wanted to release — all 23 songs of it, and all 44 pages of its lyric booklet and sumptuous glamour-girl photo spread.

The bulky double-disc set, which is available online today and in bricks-and-mortar stores next week, cost the Manhattan pianist-songstress the support of a major label (Columbia Records). Problem solved: Miss McKay soldiered on and formed her own imprint, Hungry Mouse Records.

There’s a funny little paradox in all this. For someone whose politics are proudly bohemian, Miss McKay’s idealistic insistence on the integrity of the dusty old album format seems downright conservative.

God bless our pretty little Donna Quixote.

Was “Pretty Little Head” worth all the trouble and delay?

Say this: It’s never, ever boring.

Miss McKay is so strikingly talented a musician, and so restless a music fan, that her compositions are all hungry little genre aggregators: They can whipsaw from sing-songy Broadway ditties one minute to mouthy hip-hop the next.

She clearly is impatient with cliche and banality, and, so, toys with classic forms with a refreshing irreverence and invention. With “Lali est Paresseux,” she even makes French pop sound good.

“Pretty Little Head’ kicks off with the ebullient “Cupcakes,” a wry celebration of homosexual love. That’s followed by the miraculously concise “Pink Chandeliers,” on which Miss McKay purrs over a Latin jazz groove with sitar-like noise buzzing in the background. That, in turn, is followed with the proper piano conservatory flourish of “There You Are in Me,” whose word-spitting refrain is overlaid with circa-1989 Paula Abdul production values.

You following all this?

Like the Beatles’ “White Album” (but in no other respect, I assure you), “Pretty Little Head” has its share of “Honey Pie”-like throwaways. Here, there’s the annoyingly synth-y “G.E.S.,” the summer-stock singalong “Food” and the rootsy “Yodel.” But even the latter includes self-searching lines such as: “Everybody is dying/walking to the temple of art/where I’m found out as a fraud/and there’s nobody who’s buying.”

Yet there seems to be a distinct sequential purpose to the album’s marginalia; they’re the caulking around its windows.

The pop perfection “Beecharmer,” co-written by and sung with Cyndi Lauper, suggests Miss McKay could work easily in the mainstream, with some discipline imposed from without. However, the album’s other marquee duet, “We Had it Right,” with K.D. Lang, wanders aimlessly into a reggae-fusion cul-de-sac.

The heart of the album, however, lies in Miss McKay’s earnest political convictions. “The Big One” decries urban gentrification and dredges up the unsolved murder of Harlem tenants-rights activist Bruce Bailey. “Columbia is Bleeding” finds the vegan Miss McKay railing against Columbia University’s primate laboratories.

Ultimately, Miss McKay is a serious gal who finds refuge in snark. The unexamined life isn’t worth living, said a dead white Greek philosopher. Miss McKay’s is, if I may share an unsolicited opinion, an overexamined life. She, at a tender 22 years, finds terrible injustices under every rock. The ironic detachment of her music is how she copes.

Hidden deep inside “Pretty Little Head” are the simple charms of defenseless songs such as the aptly titled chanteuse vehicle “Long & Lazy River” and “I Am Nothing,” to which Miss McKay adds a haunting cello.

On disc two one finds the sincere “Mama & Me,” a tribute to mothers anywhere, but also to Miss McKay’s own mother and greatest supporter, British actress Robin Pappas.

Nellie McKay is a card, a card-carrying radical, with a secret weakness for Hallmark-card schmaltz.

She might just be a reckless genius, too. I hope that fledgling Hungry Mouse operation is a great success.

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