Nellie McKay: Normal As Blueberry Pie

Matt Marshall By

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Nellie McKay
Normal As Blueberry Pie

Singer, musician, composer Nellie McKay has often—perhaps too conveniently—been compared to legendary big band singer and movie star Doris Day, to whom she pays tribute with this album. And certainly, McKay has played off Day's cotton-candy image all along, from the perky sunshine pose in front of urban blight on the cover of her debut album, Get Away From Me (Sony, 2004), to the large orchestrations and cabaret sound that she's arranged to accompany many of her songs.

In fact, much of the humor on Mckay's first three albums (and there's lots on all of 'em) stems from her use of comfortable 1950s' music and an innocent, steadfast vocal style to carry progressive, pithy and often howlingly profane lyrics. Listen to the vaudevillian number "Mother of Pearl" from 2007's Obligatory Villagers (Hungry Mouse Records), which opens with the line "feminists don't have a sense of humor" and closes with "that's why these feminists just need to find a man." Or "I Wanna Get Married" from Get Away From Me on which McKay sweetly, obediently concludes that housewifery was, indeed, why she was born.

Of course, it's all tongue in cheek. But since McKay gives off only the slightest hint of sarcasm in her singing, the songs are uncomfortably real and sincerely funny. Still, at times it felt like the Doris Day shtick was little more than that—a backward, outmoded style to mock backward, outmoded ideas. Normal As Blueberry Pie tosses those feelings into the compost bin.

"I'm as corny as Kansas in August," McKay sings on "Wonderful Guy," one of 12 covers of Day recordings on the album (it also includes one original, "If I Ever Had a Dream"). The wonderful thing is that McKay doesn't sound corny at all. Or, to put it another way, she sounds genuinely corny, if that makes any sense. McKay doesn't try to alter her vocal style to match Day's (she doesn't employ a strong, antiquated vibrato, for instance), but it's hard to think of another contemporary singer who could pull off such a tribute without it sounding rather like a put-on. This music—this style—is as normal, as natural and as relevant for McKay as, well, that titular pie. Which is to say that her music is a quirky blend of rich American flavors: familiar, but hardly run of the mill. This isn't apple pie.

In addition to arrangement, orchestration (on most tracks) and vocal duties, McKay also plays a host of instruments here: piano, organ, ukulele, synthesizer and tambura, to name a few. The songs are intimate, small-group affairs that can nevertheless conjure grand scapes ("Black Hills Of Dakota") and big band swing ("Crazy Rhythm," "Dig It"). To suggest that McKay plays it straight vocally wouldn't be an understatement but, instead, a misstatement. It's not an act. But she can sing "shoo shoo" and "absolutely pip!" with complete authenticity on "Crazy Rhythm," yet still poke fun at the same piece of music with interjections like "kick it!" and "that's jaaaazz." She gives a haunting, minimalist interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Meditation," accompanying herself on overdubbed ukuleles, augmented by trombone and flute only on the one-chorus musical break. She includes a nicely pared-downed rendition of Day's first hit with Les Brown, "Sentimental Journey," that relies largely on piano and oboe accompaniment, but wisely skips a go at the mindlessly fatalistic "Que Sera, Sera," which Day herself was said to dislike, despite the success she had with it.

Many fans of McKay's earlier work will no doubt be surprised by this album. But they'll certainly recognize the singer's aesthetic connection to Day and the pair's shared concern for animal rights, and, in the end, they'll probably stop short of thinking that McKay's gone completely soft. Those new to her music (or those who have dismissed her as too confrontational up to this point) should take to the record rather easily (and then, hopefully, slide back into what she's done in the past). For, despite the full immersion into a bygone era, this album makes perfect sense in relation to McKay's other material. And, in fact, it strengthens that material with the weight that comes from having fully owned traditional form.

Tracks: The Very Thought Of You; Do Do Do; Wonderful Guy; Meditation; Mean To Me; Crazy Rhythm; Sentimental Journey; If I Ever Had A Dream; Black Hills Of Dakota; Dig It; Send Me No Flowers; Close Your Eyes; I Remember You.

Personnel: Nellie McKay: vocals, piano, organ, ukulele, synthesizer, mellotron, bells, tympani, tambura; Bob Dorough: piano; Jay Berliner: guitar; Jay Anderson: bass; Clarence Penn: drums; Charles Pillow: tenor saxophone, oboe; Glenn Drewes: trumpet; John Allred: trombone; Lawrence Feldman: clarinet, flute; David Weiss: flute; Sharon Moe: French horn; Cenovia Cummins: violin; Paolo Perre, Kevin Rennard, Lucas Steele: vocals.

Year Released: 2009 | Style: Vocal

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