Nellie McKay, 'Pretty Little Head' (Columbia)

7
Pretty Little Head
Critical Mass
Label: Columbia

by Mikael Wood

Two years ago Nellie McKay differentiated herself from other post–Norah Jones piano-playing ladies by rapping about the late Senator Paul Wellstone and eulogizing her dead kitty. Her debut, Get Away From Me, won her fans in blue-state hot spots, like her adopted home of New York City, as well as press clips comparing the street-smart prodigy with iconoclasts from Doris Day to Eminem.

But a precocious 21-year-old can only surprise us for so long by hanging the vagaries of youth on cabaret's antique frame. Now she must prove that the idiom can be a durable mode of expression for someone who's equally committed to name-checking Danielle Steel and curtailing Columbia University's animal-testing practices. Essentially, she has to show she's not a one-trick refugee from the Manhattan School of Music.

That she succeeds on a record as sophisticated as the self-produced Pretty Little Head is not only a testament to McKay's talent, it's also a tribute to her artistic sense. On Get Away she approached her songs with an Off-Broadway formalism, writing the ballad, the rocker, the novelty number. Here she swirls her colors freely. A sharp-eared satirist in the tradition of They Might Be Giants, she laces her work with wit that lies in the conversation between her lyrics and her music. In the opener, "Cupcake," she crows, "I need you in the scarlet afterglow," but flouts that lovesick sentiment with horrorshow organ ooze. "I don't wanna be another fool, another sad statistic," McKay claims over weepy arpeggios in "There You Are in Me," before a grungy chorus that recalls Em's "Lose Yourself" tells her to cut the self-pity.

McKay's peculiarities could relegate her to the same pop-cult career path taken by the two grande dame eccentrics who join her for duets: In "Bee Charmer," McKay and Cyndi Lauper compare notes on romance between oddballs, and k.d. lang classes up "We Had It Right," a gorgeous show tune in search of a show. But McKay probably won't settle for middlebrow ubiquity. She didn't drop out of college just to entertain her classmates; she wants to make her punch lines populist. Well, that, and the girl just wants to have fun.

SEE ALSO: Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine (Clean Slate/Epic, 2005)

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