Nellie McKay

Music Reviews Nellie McKay
Nellie McKay

(Above: McKay gives away her album to fans who can answer her trivia questions. Photo by Kristina Feliciano.)

Nellie McKay did everything wrong at her show on Monday night in Manhattan, from forgetting lyrics to distributing an article from a vegetarian magazine. And the result was one of her finest performances yet. The only problem facing those lucky enough to witness it was figuring out how to describe it.

McKay has never been easy to classify, though many have tried. She’s a piano-playing singer/songwriter whose repertory includes torch songs, satire, rap, and sunny, socially conscious diatribes, all variously informed by jazz, bossa nova, the Beatles, show tunes, and Randy Newman, for starters. McKay is only 20 but dresses like a Sunday-school teacher. And her diction—round vowels and never a hard “er”—is in the practiced manner of an actress from yesteryear. She’s Sandra Dee, Fanny Brice, Patti Smith and Al Franken all rolled up in one, with a piano. Or something like that.

On Monday night at Makor, a subterranean space on the Upper West Side, McKay was promoting her new album, Pretty Little Head (which has since been temporarily shelved due to McKay’s split with Columbia Records), the follow-up to 2004’s Get Away From Me. Like that effort, Pretty is a fitful mix of styles and themes. And like Get Away, it’s distractingly—and, some might say, annoyingly—busy. Just a few years ago, when McKay was still playing small clubs with sticky tables, she built an avid following using only her piano and preternatural wit and wisdom. She still has all three, but the addition of a full band on her recordings actually blunts McKay’s edges. Tonight, she led a quartet featuring standup bass, drums, sax and guitar. But the best-received songs—in a set list that spanned both albums (including Get Away’s priceless ode to cloning, “Clonie”)—were the ones she performed on piano with only the bass backing her: an exquisite rendition of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” and the Pretty Little Head ballad “Gladd,” which McKay said she wrote for a friend who recently passed away.

That’s not to say McKay disappointed elsewhere. She’s that rare entertainer who can command a room under virtually any circumstance. Realizing she hadn’t brought the lyrics to one song, she breezily promised she’d “la-di-da” through any parts of it that she couldn’t remember. And when she paused early on to do a “raffle”—giving away CDs to people who could answer questions like ‘who can tell me the date civil partnerships between gay couples became legal in England [for the record, it’s Dec. 21]—it wasn’t disruptive; it was charming.

And lest this devoted animal-rights activist anger anyone by distributing copies of a Satya magazine article about the pets abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, McKay ended with a zing. She explained she’d wanted Bob Dylan to duet with her on “We Had It Right,” a song on the new album, but he turned her down, so she got k.d. lang instead. But, as she launched into the tune, she told us to imagine Dylan singing lang’s parts. And then she sang them herself, contrasting her own cotton-candy delivery with Dylan’s trademark wheezy, vowel-extending style. And when she left the stage and the lights came up, the crowd was still laughing. They may not have known exactly what they’d just seen. But they knew it was really something.

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