Nellie McKay,
Get Away From Me
(Columbia, 2004)

I've been seduced by a 19-year-old -- not literally, perhaps, but musically, psychologically and metaphorically. The depth of her songwriting combined with her vocal and instrumental ability suggests that an old soul resides in this young singer and songwriter. It's rare to encounter an album of such uniform high quality, and rarer still for an artist to hit such a peak on the first release. But such is the accomplishment of Nellie McKay on her debut album, Get Away From Me.

The press is already rife with daily accolades and superlatives as one critic after another falls under her spell, inspiring comparisons ranging from Billie Holliday to Randy Newman. The review copy of the CD carries quotes such as "A whiz-kid teenage songwriter, plays piano and riffles through styles from Tin Pan Alley to hip-hop," "Born to charm," "Draws comparisons to two of pop culture's polar opposites, Doris Day and Eminem," "Stylistically, she is like a living, breathing White Album." It all sounds like an incredible amount of music biz hype, but when you sit down and listen to the songs you realize that it's all true, and then some. The Doris Day/Eminem references are understandable in terms of the music industry wanting to explain something that is totally new and different using familiar reference points, but the fact is that McKay has already surpassed most of the singers and songwriters to whom she is being compared, including Norah Jones, whose own wonderful debut album Come Away With Me partially inspired the title of this release.

The White Album reference, which at first glance suggests a massive overstatement, turns out to be more than apt for a number of reasons. First, the songs received the most adept studio treatment imaginable by producer Geoff Emerick, a one-time Abbey Road engineer whose resume includes work on all of the latter period Beatles albums. On the surface, these two records share the format of being two-record sets; on a deeper level, Get Away From Me mirrors the classic Beatles album in that it contains a wealth of impossibly wonderful songs performed with a surprising amalgam of musical styles. The music here mostly centers on a combination of piano jazz, 1950s jazz-pop vocals and intelligent, sharp-tongued, clever rap that is woven into the mix with a Broadway show-tune sensibility.

So what exactly is going on here? McKay is full of contradictions. She's young but sounds old. Her music is fresh and new but is filled with oldstyle elements. According to her website, her academic performance declined sharply during her high school career and she's hardly old enough to have gone to college, but you would have to look long and hard to find a songwriter as smart, literate and word-obsessed as McKay. Her bio lists her as a dropout from the Manhattan School of Music, yet Get Away From Me suggests a level of musical knowledge, ability and sophistication that musicians with far greater experience might never attain. I could easily fill this review with nothing but great quotes from her clever lyrics, but even more impressive to me is the wealth of melody that McKay draws from in the creation of these songs. Clever wordplay is impressive in its own right, but the ability to write memorable melodies has never seemed to me to be a skill that one could learn -- some artists just seem to have it, some don't.

Consider the autobiographical nature of the lyric that opens the album: "Look at you you're young/havin' so much fun/gonna be a star/blah blah blah/and click there goes the phone/I don't wanna know/what my horoscope's predicting/just pour me a drink/cuz I need a kick/I don't wanna think/I just wanna sip." The next verse takes a cute jab at President Bush, all this contained in a song that's really about a guy, the song's namesake "David," who is not responding as intended, set to a tune so appealing that when it ends you'll just want to start it again. Consider the further contradiction that while six of the first seven songs on this disc have drinking references, her website claims she neither drinks nor smokes.

"Manhattan Avenue" offers truly evocative verbal imagery inspired by the Harlem neighborhood in which McKay spent a portion of her childhood and set to the sweet sound of lounge piano jazz, sounding as if it could just as easily have been recorded in 1953 as 2003, except maybe for the exceptional recording quality of the bass, piano, percussion and voice. "Sari" intertwines sung choruses and rapped verses in the best manner of Broadway musicals and rewards the listener more and more with each successive spin. "I'm sorry for the mess/the stupid way I'm dressed/I guess I failed my test/oh don't you know I'm sorry for my views/I don't know how to schmooze/and yet you know that really I'm sorry for you." This song is ultimately a sarcastic dissertation on the act of apology, chastising herself for apologizing. The spelling of the song title puts a nice point on the sarcasm.

"Ding Dong" is utterly charming, even including an occasional slight British accent suggesting her London birthright, followed later in the song with a momentary dabble with a French accent -- very cute. "Baby Watch Your Back" gets an uptempo jazz workout with high intensity vocals and a vibe solo. "The Dog Song" works multiple levels of meaning simultaneously within a song that on the surface sounds like giddy exuberance; complete with hand tapped percussion and panting dog sounds by McKay. "I Wanna Get Married" is more sweet-sounding '50s style jazz-pop, with a lyrical sentiment of similar vintage, delivered tongue-in-cheek by McKay, yet sung with such sincerity that the apparent contradiction between what you hear and what you know delivers yet another delicious listening experience. Many writers are quoting the line about "making cute little lunches for my Brady bunches" but how about "I wanna get married/yes, I need a spouse/I want a nice Leave it to Beaverish/golden retriever and a little white house." This is too perfect. "Change the World" concludes the first disc with rapid-fire lyrics that cover more ground in just one song than many artists would attempt in an entire album. The words fly so fast during some of her raps that it's nice that McKay has posted all of her lyrics on her website.

The album's two-disc format is interesting in itself; the 18 songs would just as easily fit on one CD, so why two? On the package, which is priced the same as a typical single CD, the discs are labeled as "Side 1" and "Side 2," which is a throwback to the days of vinyl, when song position and sequencing were much more of an issue in the creation of an album than they are today. I find it hard to even get to side two sometimes because side one keeps demanding a replay; ditto side two. "It's a Pose" starts side two with lyrics that advance by at least several lightyears the war between the sexes, complete with a seemingly bored male voice interjecting, "What the hell do you mean?" The verbal swagger is matched by a musical arrangement that pairs her dynamic piano work with a really swinging violin. The outlook that informs these lyrics would seem improbable at any age -- this wonderful track will leave you scratching your head, and playing it again.

"Toto Dies" pulls off the miracle of turning the otherwise annoying "Oh-Wee-O" chant from The Wizard of Oz into a song that you will actually enjoy. "Won't U Please Be Nice" presents another raft of contradictions. While it's one of my favorite tracks on the record, her website notes that McKay received an "F" for it from the Manhattan School of Music. While the sound has the pure sweet sexy style of the best '50s jazz-pop, the lyrics are decidedly subversive. Within a romantic ode to a marital spouse, McKay offers threats of endearment like "if we part I'll eat your heart/if you go I'll get your dough/if you run I'll pull a gun/give me head or you'll be dead/salute the flag or I'll call you a fag/oh won't you please be nice."

"Inner Peace" is perhaps the only song on the record that sounds remotely like anything you've ever heard before, and that's only because of its slight similarity to "Change the World" just four tracks earlier. "Suitcase Song" has a nice Latin-style rhythm and lots of neat New York City references in the lyrics, set to another gorgeous melody complete with superb production -- another gem. "Work Song" may cause you to wonder, is this rap or is it radical Gilbert & Sullivan? Again the rap is meshed with a hook-laden melody and superb production.

"Clonie" is an instantly charming tune that on the surface sounds like fluff, but the song is essentially a love song to a clone, the implications of which I won't even go into here, but the simplicity of the melody again contradicts the complexity of the subject, rendering another totally delightful and intriguing performance. "Respectable" provides an uptempo wordy slice of McKay's mentality, so personal, so individual, so opinionated and so complicated that you're left to wonder how exactly did the girl get this way in a mere 19 years.

Although the album carries a parental advisory warning sticker for explicit language, the language in question works in the context of her writing. During the luxurious sounding "Really," which concludes the album with another beautiful slow jazz vocal with exquisite mellow trumpet accompaniment, she refers to herself as a "yuppie f***" and it comes off sounding at the same time both sweet and irreverent, believe it or not. For the weak of heart (and Wal-Mart customers) there's a "clean" version of this album available, but the very idea of censoring these lyrics for whatever reason seems wrong.

McKay has a cute joke on her record label which she rhymes with "Clonie" in the line "I should have signed with Verve instead of Sony." You've got to love this kid and you've got to give Sony a lot of credit here -- not only did McKay's intensely personal and unique vision come through the corporate meatgrinder totally intact, but her songs were given the ultimate treatment by Emerick. For all the flack they take about big corporations ruining the music business, Sony really got it right this time.

That an artist could come up with something so fresh, new, brash, smart, clever, funny and most of all supremely musical and hit a grand slam the first time up is huge. One can only wonder what the future holds for this talented artist and one can only hope that she's prepared to handle all the success that will inevitably come her way. I've heard thousands upon thousands of artists and albums during my many years of listening to and writing about popular music, and I can honestly say that I've never heard a record quite like this one. And I don't imagine I'll hear another anytime soon, at least not until McKay releases her next album. Get Away From Me gets my highest recommendation.

- Rambles
written by William Kates
published 20 March 2004

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