Monday, April 30, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #204 - Nellie McKay - Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day

Nellie McKay is a jazz-schooled, showtune-raised singer-songwriter whose stylistic tour-de-force debut double-album Get Away From Me was recorded when she was only 21 (or possibly just 19, depending on what reports you read), released by Sony Music after a bidding competition with other labels, with the Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick producing. That’s a lot to live down on future releases. And sure enough, the failure of the album to go gold despite the record’s widespread acclaim and dazzling diversity (or maddeningly hyperactive eclecticism, depending on your point of view) meant that she wouldn’t coast as readily into a music career as her talents deserved.
And talented she definitely is - a multi-instrumentalist and piano player with jazz chops, a singer of pure and natural ease and a big voice, a lyricist with sarcastic wit and strong feminist and progressive ideas, a songwriter who knows jazz, Broadway, varied styles of pop from classic to modern, and yet isn’t averse to dropping rock and rap into her music when it suits her. But her métier is the classic pop vernacular where songsmiths use whatever means they choose to get their point across - melded, of course, with her interest in jazz and pre-rock era pop music.
After fighting her label to release her first album a double album, she fought yet again to make the second a double album and Sony balked – one double album that could’ve fit on a single CD was made by the label under duress, but they weren’t about to do it again and they dropped her, so she released it on her own label. The next time out she tightened things up to an excellent single disc, Obligatory Villagers, tightened the arrangements as well, and traded in pop guests from the last album, like Cyndi Lauper and kd lang, for jazz cats, like saxophonist Dave Liebman and the sadly, recently deceased pianist/vocalist Bob Dorough (best known nowadays for his work on Schoolhouse Rock). And it seemed like a perfect fit – her crafty, jazz-school arrangements and witty, smart lyrics were tailor-made for musicians like these, but the album still didn’t break her through.
It was after the release of this album that I saw McKay live at the now-defunct Trilogy Lounge in Boulder. After three albums of her eccentricity I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I got this (if memory serves): McKay with keyboard and ukulele only, a great voice, great song selection across all three albums, and a kookiness that bordered on ADD behavior, her mind and between-song banter flitting from topic to topic until she lost her train of thought and got back on with the next song where she focused her energy until the next break. During one break she called her brother on her cell to wish him a happy birthday – or pretended to maybe as a piece of performance art? Hard to say for sure, but it’s what she does – jumps from idea to idea, never sitting still long enough to get pigeonholed. So what came next in her career? A tribute to Doris Day, naturally, released by the jazz-associated Verve label, which had put in a bid for McKay’s contract in the first place.
How does Doris Day’s image as a mild and complacent Midwestern housewife fit in with McKay’s world of parental advisory stickers, hip-hop influence, and explicit feminism though? Aside from a love for the verbal wit of classic pop (as well as a longtime commitment to animal activism), McKay’s got a basic love of melody and the voice to pull off the kinds of tunes that Day wrapped her big voice around. Taking on a dozen songs that Day recorded during her long career (only one of them, “Sentimental Journey,” was a big hit for Day) and adding one original, McKay tackles tunes from such lauded songsmiths as Rodgers and Hammerstein, George & Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and others, and, unexpectedly enough, plays it straight throughout. She’s not here to mock, but to celebrate the direct beauty of these melodies, the craft and (sometimes) sentimentality of these words. In short, she’s playing it “normal as blueberry pie” here and it sounds great. If you compare to Doris Day’s versions, Nellie McKay’s are sleeker, wilder and looser, unburdened of Day’s orchestral backings and given jazzier, more rhythmically exciting readings, but readings where McKay shares Day’s clear diction and enunciation and, of course, her big voice putting the songs across. So from love songs like “The Very Thought of You” (on which McKay plays every instrument), “Mean to Me” and the album-highlight “Wonderful Guy” over to dance tunes like “Crazy Rhythm” and “Dig It” to a novelty tune like Calamity Jane’s “Black Hills of Dakota,” Nellie McKay doesn’t update, undercut, or do anything but sing (and arrange, and perform) these tunes. Maybe there’s a wink here and there, as in the sotto voce asides in “Dig It” but she’s never making fun – she’s just loving the songs. This puts the focus on the songs and the words themselves, which means that those coming to this expecting a sendup can learn not only what made these songs popular, but also what made Day popular – there’s a smart, strong woman performing them and she’s easy to identify with. And though McKay’s arrangements may go further than Day could or would have gone with them at the time, they do no disrespect.
            And where has Nellie McKay gone since then? Another album of originals for Verve (Home Sweet Mobile Home) followed in 2010, then McKay disappeared for a bit, returning in 2015 on yet another label with an excellent album of renditions of 60’s classics, My Weekly Reader. She was quiet again for a while but I got inspired to write this up only to find while I was writing that her new album, Sister Orchid (a collection of jazz standards on, again, another label), comes out in three weeks. Be sure to check it out, but start here with what may well be her best album.
-         Patrick Brown

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