Nellie McKayHome Sweet Mobile HomeVerve
Singer and multi-instrumentalist Nellie McKay
seems to need a break. Not from music-making, mind you, but from the toils of existing within a bump and drive world that has little time for reflection or respite, and none, seemingly, to worry about repeating yesterday's mistakes. With any luck, McKay, that spunky champion of the underdog, was far away, basking in island breezes when the recent US election day broke. More likely, however, she had to content herself, like Bob Dylan
with this "Highlands," to simply having that place in her mind.
Indeed, McKay's fifth album, Home Sweet Mobile Home
, released just over a month before the 2010 midterm elections, finds the songstress basking in a tropical warmth, pumping out reggae numbers and Latin-tinged rhythms when she's in the mood to dance, then reclining into drifting psychedelia and 1950s pop when she wants to cool it. The protest and wit from her earlier records hasn't been jettisoned so much as internalized, released here through deeper, slow-burning methods. Gone are the angst and spit of "Sari" and "Inner Peace" from her debut, Get Away From Me
(Columbia, 2004), exchanged, if not for peace, exactly, than for a more nuanced brand of protestone that bangs to the gut with the quotidian reality of human need and loss.
"It's no military time, it's an island thing," McKay sings of her escape from the grind on the pulsing reggae "Caribbean Time." And since, in the modern age, "the words of oppression are go, go, go!" she offers the simple prescription of "walking real slow." Later, on the soulful disco number "Beneath the Underdog," she'll declare the impermissible: "winning can leave you feeling sleazy." No, she'll take the life of the figurative tramp, thank you very much. Corporate board members are aghast, but this isn't exactly new terrain for McKay. She's rattled the race before. But there's another layer this time. "It's me or it's you," she warns over the funkier soul of "No Equality""We should've kicked over the ladder from the start." It's not hard to find a political message therein, yet "No Equality" is ostensibly a love song, revealing that the political being doesn't spring fully formed from the pages of The New York Times (which "invents the news" according to the album's opener, "Bruise on the Sky"), but is, rather, a live, breathing, loving, heartbroken person. Life informs the political stance as much as the other way around.
"What I hoped would be my rainbow," McKay confesses against the strong, defiant rock guitar strains of that first song, "was just a bruise on the sky." A rather somber beginning. Yet the solitary ukulele-driven sendoff "Adios," with melancholic, residual sparks from John Lennon's infamous laundry list of rejection, "God," proves that staking some turf slightly off field hardly signals a surrender. Instead, space is gained for wistful retreats home from the battle, even if, as in "Coosada Blues," with its wonderfully idyllic 1950s back-glow, that home be mobile, and, most probably, fleeting. A slightly different thaumatropic effect is achieved on the swashbuckling romance "¡Bodega!" with its celebratory Latin brass duly drenched in the swooping, jubilant skip of Eisenhower-era pop music. The sweeping narrative casts a loving eye on the grand, community-anchoring bodegas of yore. But the beguiling, mythical haze barely masks a feudal truth that still rings in this, the age of foreclosure. Still, the struggle for homefor a sense of foundation and belongingcontinues.
But McKay hasn't totally gone in for artistic layering. "Unknown Reggae" is as pointed a protest against carnivorous culpability (i.e., the unnecessary eating of meat) as you'll hope to find: "Hey you, eating that burger... eating that mother... eating that torture." And it takes particular aim at McKay's fellow progressives, those she sees protesting against all manner of human injustices while happily noshing on their favorite slaughtered animal. Yet McKay, that "radiant kook," as writer Stephen Holder nicely pinned her in an October 2010 New York Times article, also adds a background chorus of baying sheep to her song, the fauna egging her on with supportive "yeeeeaaahs."
"Please, Mrs. Henry, start me off without a chance," she sings on the album's fourth song, "Please," once more communing briefly with Dylan in a satirical ditty that reminds us that society's underclass actively chooses its own wretched fate. Nine tracks later, on the closer, "Bluebird," captured live with a traditional New Orleans jazz band, McKay pleads with the jovial thrush to bring back her happiness, though a certain weary maturity in her voice tells us she hardly expects anything of the sort. "Culture carries me in its swell," she acknowledges. She's as doomed (and dazed) as the rest of us. And when the band stops playing, there's noticeably no applause, just the odd clanking of diners' silverware and glass.
This may sound like a particularly downer close to one, long downer album. But in McKay's hands it's anything but. The entire record is drenched in soul, both in musical sensibility and lyrical reference (the word pops up in nearly every song), keeping matters invitingindeed, emotionally grippingeven when the content is less than joyful. McKay weaves a musical line to thread gospel, funk, R&B, rock, reggae, Latin and New Orleans jazz, and ties them up in a welcoming basket of Americanaa smelly catch she freely swings beneath the noses of the forces of injustice, while simultaneously celebrating that selfsame, spicy jambalaya of human experience. It's a most welcome, mobile feast.
Tracks: Bruise on the Sky; Adios; Caribbean Time; Please; Beneath the Underdog; Dispossessed; The Portal, ¡Bodega!; Coosada Blues; No Equality; Absolute Elsewhere; Unknown Reggae; Bluebird.
Personnel: Nellie McKay: vocals, piano, organ, marimba, ukulele, saxophone, clarinet, cello, percussion, synthesizer; Ben Bynum: drums; Danny Cahn: trumpet; Tim Carbone: violin; Lucien Ceran: saxophone; Rick Chamberlain: trombone; Jim Daniels: tuba; Glenn Drewes: trumpet; Bob Glaub: bass; Paul Hoderbaum: saxophone; Brian Jobson: bass; Wayne Jobson: guitar; Reggie McBride: bass; Joslyn "Speckles" McKenzie: drums; Willie Murillo: trumpet, backup vocals; Barry O'Hare: keyboard; Cary Park: guitar; Lance Rauh: saxophone; David Raven: drums; Spencer Reed: guitar; Paul Rostock: bass; Mark Visher: saxophones, clarinet, backup vocals; Paul Wells: drums.