By now, Nellie McKay’s well-publicized feud with Sony is the stuff of legend. After being nominated for the Shortlist prize for her double-album debut, Get Away From Me, the flamboyant, eccentric singer-songwriter decides to throw caution to the wind and release yet another double album. Sony, of course, says no. She tentatively agrees to release one disc, showgoers find themselves on the business end of a hissy fit, and a contract is broken. Thus, McKay is free to release the album on her own terms, on her own Hungry Mouse imprint, and everyone wins, or so I would assume.
Shortly before McKay and Sony parted ways, promo copies of Columbia’s version went out with a 16 song tracklist, which only cut seven songs (okay, that’s a pretty substantial chunk of music). But hell, you’re almost there anyway, right? In any case, Pretty Little Head isn’t any more commercially difficult than her debut, which might have even been more stylistically outlandish. Head is still quirky and all over the map, however, so those who found her schizophrenic genre-jumping a positive selling point should be pleased with this new effort.
To know Nellie McKay, however, is to understand that she’s theatrical. Though she may at times remind one of Fiona Apple, she’s just as likely to belt out campy showtunes, and that’s not such a bad thing. McKay’s theatricality makes her music a lot of fun, even when it’s bitter and aggressive, as on “There You Are In Me,” which flutters along on a meandering piano progression before adding distortion and group shouting during the chorus. Yet opener “Cupcake” is a silly ’70s-style pop tune written from the perspective of a gay disco dancer, and even spells out the word “GAY” at the bridge.
Meanwhile, Latin rhythms color the brief “Pink Chandelier,” while “The Big One” takes on a hip-hop sound, touched up with the right amount of brass, makes commercialism downright ominous: “money money make a buck/but you’re all out of luck/this town ain’t friendly now/a thousand faces stare you down.” This heaviness is offset by the lounge organ of “I Will Be There” and “Food,” a song about, well, food of course. McKay’s best moments come when she focuses less on camp as she does on writing a great pop song, and there certainly are quite a few on this set. “The Down Low” swings with hip-swaying glee, among the catchiest moments here. “Real Life” even rocks, well, for an Original Cast Recording. But McKay’s the central player here, and a delightful one at that. Likewise, “Happy Flower” mixes Kurt Weill with calypso rhythms for a cuter, younger, female version of Tom Waits. Oh, and if you think that means it sounds like The Dresden Dolls, then fuck you.
McKay’s songwriting, performing and singing are enough to make this album a keeper, but duets with k.d. Lang and Cyndi Lauper certainly don’t hurt either. The proper version of Pretty Little Head really isn’t that much longer than Sony’s version, so the beef seems unnecessary, though some of the extra tracks also seem unnecessary. I have no argument with an artist that merely wants to share more of her art with the world, so if that means there are a few tracks that possibly should have been saved for b-sides, I think I can live with that.
Nellie McKay – Get Away From Me
Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine
Marly Hornik – Say You Do
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.