Monday, October 11, 2010

Champion of Dogs and Underdogs

Singer-songwriter-pianist-activist Nellie McKay, whose latest CD packs a melodious punch.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

In a tease for Nellie McKay’s performance tomorrow at the Greene Space, for WNYC’s “Soundcheck,” someone called her new CD, Home Sweet Mobile Home, “whimsical.” Perhaps, I thought—in a Weill-Brechtian way. The shark has pearly teeth, and also, with her sweet, slightly askew smile, does Nellie, who is sharklike only when she’s fighting the good fight, on behalf of animals (“Eatin’ that burger… Eatin’ that torture”), the disenfranchised (“So you’ll find me/Here right beneath the underdog”), and the never-franchised (“Please sir let me lay in the sewer that claimed me”).

Since Nellie played Polly Peachum in a 2006 Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera, the Weill-Brecht influence would not be surprising, but, aside from last year’s Doris Day tribute album, which involved singing (beautifully) about cockeyed optimism and sentimental journeys, Nellie has from the beginning—after all, her first CD was called Get Away from Me—given us clever, sometimes acerbic, always enlightened songs couched in a Tin Pan Alley musical sensibility. (For my interview with Nellie on the Doris Day album, go to Vanity Fair’s website.)

I had assumed the CD title’s mobile-home reference had to do with today’s economy—and it might—but Nellie told an interviewer that her “nana” lived in a trailer and she used to like visiting there, and the cover shows a faux-naïf painting (her own) of a happy, lipsticked cat putting on Nellie’s record in a cozy, rosy setting. The inside packaging contains more animal art, along with photos of a smiling, saronged Nellie (the album includes the lilting “Caribbean Time,” recorded in Jamaica), but in the background are drawings of smokestacks spewing pollution—yet, indeed, rather whimsically!

Such is the despairing/rejoicing world of Nellie McKay, which I hope you will enter if you have not already. My favorite song on the CD is “Bruise on the Sky,” with its poignancy, lovely and inventive harmonies, and typically startling lyrics (“I need your loving eyes/At least your cyanide”).

Nellie will be on “Soundcheck” October 12, and you can check out tour dates and download “Caribbean Time” at her website.

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