Nellie McKay's music moves in leaps and bounds, and is constrained only by a mind that was raised on equal parts of Gershwin and Eminem and Billie Holiday. It takes two CDs for her to say what could be said, arguably with more impact, on one. It is wildly inconsistent in style and in quality, which gives it a strange sort of consistency. It is simultaneously arrogant and accessible. With Nellie McKay, you have to expect the unexpected.
She seems to have a personal story behind each song, whether it's a political plea or a playful romp. The vitriol of "Columbia is Bleeding" attacks the integrity of nearly every player in the animal-rights battle (an issue with which McKay is closely involved). "Mama & Me" is the antithesis to Eminem's "Cleanin' Out My Closet," and is followed by the sexy and playful "Pounce." The Latin-tinged "Pink Chandelier" lovingly conveys a desperate sexuality, and the pained vocals of "I Am Nothing" conjure a sadness that wasn't present on McKay's debut. "The Big One" might seem toothless on a casual listen, but the call to revolution is unmistakable in both her lyrics and her low-key delivery.
The refrain in "The Big One" ("That's why they took Bruce Bailey down") brings to light one of McKay's greatest strengths: she layers complex messages deep within her songs, and she trusts her listeners to find them. There are no explanations of who Bruce Bailey was, but the lyrics suggest he was a man who died fighting against gentrification. A few minutes with Google reveals that Bailey was a tenant's rights activist in New York City who spent his last day alive attending court with McKay's mother, and was then murdered and dismembered, allegedly by apartment owner Jack Ferranti and/or his brother, Mario. The Ferrantis were charged with setting a fatal fire in one of their other buildings in 1992, so they could collect insurance money. (The line, "looks like the jack is back," seems to be a reference to Ferranti, despite the lack of capitalization.) This is just one of the many stories hidden beneath the surface of Pretty Little Head.
If Pretty Little Head were trimmed down to one CD, it would probably be a great album. Of course, there's always the chance that, with all of its mood swings and pace changes and good moments and misfires and valiant attempts to break through some barriers, Pretty Little Head is absolutely perfect as it is. For what is life, but a series of mood swings and pace changes and good moments and misfires and valiant attempts to break through some barriers?
Pretty Little Head is better than her debut, Get Away from Me. The worst song on here is better than the worst track on her first album, although the average songs take up more than their fair share of time on both albums. But the good songs on Pretty Little Head are where McKay shines more brightly than she ever did on her debut. She hasn't quite come into her own as an artist yet, but she's getting closer. And if we're lucky, as soon as she reaches perfection, she'll do what all great musicians do: she'll tear it down and start all over again.
There's nothing here that's groundbreaking, but it's a very good companion to the music. There are lots of pictures, and they show many different sides of Nellie: the chanteuse in a pink gown gorging on food; the femme fatale brushing her long, blonde hair; the animal lover caught in a spontaneous smile; the girl laughing as she plays her piano; the musician loving the very fact that she is a musician. As fits her music, McKay is always somewhat sophisticated, even in the most casual of photos. The lyrics are included, which is an absolute must since they are the cornerstone of McKay's work.
Listen if you like: In spirit, she reminds me of They Might Be Giants, and anyone who remembers Poi Dog Pondering should give her a listen. She's one of those artists who could appeal to anyone or no one, and she seems like someone who could have a breakout smash hit or go her whole life making meaningful music that only a few people hear.
If it were food, it'd be: Rice surprise. It was a spontaneous stew that I used to whip up as a poor vegetarian with a big appetite. It was equal parts gourmet snob and impoverished desperation, as it could include anything from shiitake mushrooms to a sack of potatoes, depending on what was available for cheap at the farmer's market. I never knew how it would turn out (thus the surprise), but it was healthful and provided sustenance when I desperately needed it.