Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Nellie McKay's "My Weekly Reader" Delights

Pop Singer Nellie McKay
     Nellie McKay is a wonderful, complicated idiosyncrasy:  a pop singer who isn’t a fawned over superstar, a multi-instrumentalist in an era when singers can barely play “Chopsticks,” and a historian of popular music who puts the song before her ‘interpretation’ of it.  In short, she’s extraordinarily talented and unique.  Geoff Emerick, who engineered a number of The Beatles’ albums, has been a key collaborator as her producer from her debut Get Away from Me (2004).  She can also sing in any genre:  Pop, Rock, Hip-Hop, Country, Jazz, Great American Songbook.  She feels like the granddaughter heir apparent to Dinah Washington and Rosemary Clooney.

     Whether singing her own compositions or covering other composers (her 2009 album Normal As Blueberry Pie – A Tribute to Doris Day), she is neither cynical nor self-serving.  Her songs, however, generally touch upon contemporary and/or continuing social issues, which used to be a primary root of American popular song.  Unfortunately, the music corporations place little value in that so McKay moved from Columbia to Verve – a better fit for her in the long run.  She wanted to rediscover an era that was artistically and politically sincere for her latest album so she turned to the Vietnam War, concentrating on songs from 1965 – 1973.  Though she hasn’t written the songs on her latest, she plays about eighteen different instruments on it.  

     From the title My Weekly Reader, recalling the urban underground press’ heyday, to the production that initially sounds like the move from mono to stereo, this sounds like the late ‘60s.  However, she presents further nuance especially in Moby Grape’s “Murder In My Heart For the Judge,” which speaks to urban unrest in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin killing and the Ferguson, MO riots and Crosby, Stills, and Kantner’s “Wooden Ships,” a haunting, wistful note on which to end the album.  She sounds like she could be Mary Hopkin’s younger sister on Steve Miller’s “Quicksilver Girl” or Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park,” and even channels the profound sadness of Sandy Denny on Ray Davies’ “Sunny Afternoon.”  It’s a treat to hear Paul Simon’s “Red Rubber Ball,” and Frank Zappa’s “Hungry Freaks, Daddy.”  I didn’t love Richard Fariña’s  “Bold Marauder,” mainly because it seemed musically monotonous and her straight ahead version of”Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” is respectful, but it doesn’t reveal her in the way of Rickie Lee Jones’s 1989 version.

Nellie McKay appears at the 20th Century Theatre in Oakley on September 17, 2015.

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