November 9, 2006

The Price of Being Yourself

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This record is Nellie McKay’s mind. Pretty Little Head is a journey through a world that exists only in her mind — it is a fantastic dream. Although brilliance is here, some of the album unfortunately is a nightmare. The album is an Adventure in Wonderland: with her beautiful voice she hic-ups and squeals; raps like a white-teenage-vegan; soulfully woos with jazzy melodies; and sings campy, laughable tunes. She remains youthful while still having something to say. This swirl of styles makes Nellie exciting, fresh and admirable. Although Pretty Little Head was ready for an October 2005 release, suits at Columbia/Sony Records were only prepared to support an abbreviated version of Pretty Little Head — Nellie McKay refused. After a brief freak out — she distributed the email of head Columbia/Sony executive at a live show — she was dropped from (see: left) the label. After uncountable delays, Pretty Little Head was finally released over a year after its completion on McKay’s own label. In her actions and in her music McKay is strong willed and vocal: anything but tame. Apparently, she likes to do things herself. A large part of the magic on her debut, Get Away From Me should be attributed to wizard-producer Geoff Emerick — the 6th Beatle (if George Martin is the 5th). Every instrument on Get Away From Me was played and recorded deliberately; every sound was creative and had intention and meaning. Although an array of instruments are used, and some fresh vocal harmonies are sung on Pretty Little Head, without Emerick’s production Nellie McKay’s inexperience unfortunately is heard.
The first track on the album, “Cupcake” is recorded with heavy, thumping drums and atmospheric guitar sounds that give this track a glossed over feel that (luckily) the vocals do not conform with. After the sequins-intro with tripled vocals and indistinguishable instruments, McKay’s voice is kept clean and brought to the foreground while she coquettishly plays with a delightful melody: “I know youth dies young / but our youth’s just begun / and ain’t it a beautiful day.” Young and bright, despite production flaws Nellie shines in her earnest vocal approach.
Again on “Yodel” Nellie sings a vulnerable and insightful tune, “Walkin to the temple of art / where I’m found out as a fraud / and there’s nobody who’s buying.” The melody is a jazz-folk, fleeting line: simple and not too serious. The production once again is botched. While the vocal harmonies are charming, and the ukulele is sweet, the synth is out of place. The subtlety of McKay’s vocals begs instead for a more minimal production — somehow, the song still works.
The duality of this album is embedded deeper than within the poor production and strong vocals or than within the number of discs (two). Nellie keeps it light, fun and happy on many tracks. McKay however, reveals darker, poignant and disturbing issues on others. On the second disc, “Food” is a cute, campy song about (what else, but) food. This is an example of Nellie embracing her 6-year-old self. The childhood theme reoccurs throughout the album with the lyrical motif of “mother” references. It becomes disturbing however in the spoken outro of “Mama & Me” when Nellie, cast in the role of a child, begs her mother for a “suicide pill” over and over, then leaves the sound of her laughing on the end of the track.
Slightly less disturbing, but just as random, is the song, “Happy Flower.” This quirky track is a 1960’s acid-trip influenced march. At one point in the song, a chorus of girls repeats, “Happy flower / happy flower” in an overly cheery fashion – cult-like, making the song creepy. If this song proves too unnerving, Nellie includes a 56 second ditty, “Pounce.” She quips, “I’m gonna pounce / pounce / I’m gonna pounce / pounce / (meow) / like a pussycat!”
Unlike this purely aural tune, not all of Nellie’s songs are confined within the stereo. A proud member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), McKay is not afraid to be outspoken. Most of the tracks have political references, and some even dedicate themselves entirely to cerebral appeal. In particular, “Columbia is Bleeding” is a mediocre song by it self, but McKay makes it meaningful as she attempts to expose the history of severe animal cruelty in the laboratories at Columbia University. The liner notes even include the website,, in order to inform her fans of issues she cares about.
Nellie McKay does not care about isolating herself from an audience, about potential marketing numbers, or about conforming. Nellie McKay is hip, exciting, and bold — and she knows it. She teaches us that we should do our own thing; we can change the world, or just be wacky and enjoy ourselves – it is all ok by her. Pretty Little Head is incredible, enjoyable and pleasing; it is also difficult, inconsistent and at times annoying – it is never boring. Some songs are beautiful and work well as they are; others work best intellectually. Even though the record is imperfect, I applaud Mckay for continuing to produce art that is difficult to pin down and stays true to her self.