Pretty Little Head
usical theatre is a form of theatre combining music, songs, spoken dialogue, and dance. The emotional content of the piece—humor, pathos, love, anger—as well as the story itself, is communicated through the words, music, movement, and technical aspects of the entertainment as an integrated whole.
Nellie McKay is a form of singer-songwriter combining music, forays into the theatre, political activism, and hissy fits aimed at former labels. The emotional content of her career—humor, pathos, preciousness, and detachment—as well as the stories themselves, are communicated through cocktail bar piano rock interspersed randomly with hip-hop, cheerleader chants, bhangra middle-eights, and moonshine banjo riffs as an integrated whole.
It’s been well over two years since Get Away from Me. And sure, Nellie McKay had a meltdown with her label, gave up music for a short while to try her luck on Broadway, and settled on a more subtle shade of golden brown for her hair. But honestly? It's the same McKay on Pretty Little Head. Still the same pretensions, still the same confusions, still the same ability to overcome her own self-imposed handicaps to put out an absolute killer of an album.
Yes, those handicaps: McKay is a uniquely irritating performer. Her magpie swoop of genres and musical styles isn't about a wide-ranging love of music, or matching the sound to the song, or even about playing a character: she does it because she can. In another time and place, she'd have made a hell of a “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” competitor. And like any great character actor, you learn nothing about McKay through listening to her music—she's always hiding behind a thick theatrical mask of smirk. Even on a track like “Mama and Me,” a skittish rap flow about motherly love that disintegrates into the world's most polite noize track and a plea for euthanization ends with a wry giggle, corpsing if you will.
Pretty Little Head differs from Get Away from Me in one specific way: whereas GAFM brought the influence of musicals kicking and screaming into the world of modern-day indie (Think “Clonie,” think “David,” think “It's a Pose”), PLH disperses with the indie part. This album is the OST to a musical with no plot. McKay’s well-publicized divorce from Columbia came about, in part, because they weren't prepared to release a double album. You can understand McKay's concern: who'd buy a cast recording with only 12 tracks?
This cast recording is better than the proposed Columbia version anyway. A song like “Columbia Is Bleeding,” when first heard last December, came across as a mere trifle, a loosely political song sung by a singer waiting for her first coffee of the day. In its full, McKay-authorized version, it's a brutal curb-stomp, marionette marching bands undergirding McKay’s bile-laden vocals. It also marks possibly the only ever protest song to use the term “macking on that ass.”
There's a duet with Cyndi Lauper as well: it’s called “Bee Charmer” and it shoehorns an 80s power-ballad chorus into a song that didn't really need it (but is all the better for it). The interplay between Lauper and McKay, with the latter reacting to the end of each line (“Feeling like an antelope on a nature show” “Oh no!”) brings back to mind those halcyon days of late 90s rap when every line ended with a cartoon sound effect.
“Real Life” runs on the distilled power of oh-so-many mid-90s piano-based alternative rock bands minus the smugness. “I Will Be There” is a Polynesian jazz rendition of Pulp’s “Babies,” and “Lali Est Parrisseux” is in French. Every song has a gimmick: banjos, yodelling, being the imaginary soundtrack to a Jennifer Aniston romcom, k.d. lang turning up and not adding much... Don’t hate the gimmick. Hate the fact that McKay pulls it off. She’s the jobbing actress that has to turn her hand to anything she can get—showcasing her demonstrable range at every turn.
“Old Enough” ends the album with its two minutes of plinky organ and McKay telling us about a woman coming to terms with maturity and the opportunities it offers her. “Never thought I'd live to be old enough...,” she sings, cutting off in mid-sentence and exiting stage right before she finishes the thought. Guess we’ll have to wait another 30 months for the next performance. If she keeps up this pace, it'll be more than worth it.
Reviewed by: Dom Passantino
Reviewed on: 2006-11-15