Thursday, November 23rd, 2006
As strange as it may sound, I can’t help but feel some pity for the executives at Columbia Music. After all – when they dropped wunderkind Nellie McKay at the end of last year following a very public and snippy tiff over the release of her second album Pretty Little Head (they wanted it a 16-track single disc, she insisted on a 23-track double-disc), it looked to be another case of majors trying to stifle a creative soul who would have no part of it.
But now that Pretty Little Head is out, independently on McKay’s own label and as the artist originally intended, it’s actually pretty easy to see Columbia’s POV. Besides the fact that the two discs clock in at under 65 minutes and could easily have fit on one, more than a few of the songs could easily be labeled throwaways or indulgences (or just outright bad) and if excised, would have made the record an easier and theoretically more sellable listen, though whether Nellie McKay’s idiosyncratic jazz-cabaret-pop could ever really be considered sellable on major label terms is debatable. Some have theorized that the blow-up over the record actually served both parties well – Columbia got rid of an artist whose payoff/headache ratio likely wasn’t nearly as favourable as they hoped and McKay got the full creative control over her work she so obviously demands. Sure, it stalled the release of the record by over a year but it’s here now – so let’s examine.
Firstly, I don’t know about others, but it can take me a few listens to get into a Nellie-appropriate headspace as she’s generally several degrees removed from my usual listening fare, but once there it’s generally quite an enjoyable visit. The sound is very much in the vein of Get Away From Me, though broader and more ambitious with more instrumentation and denser production and though you’d expect. The wit, precociousness and smart-aleckery are still very much intact, though – you’d expect that for an artist as young as she is (how old is she claiming to be these days?), there’d have been some significant and detectable maturation between albums one and two but not so much here – so either she was preternaturally mature on the first record or a little arrested on this one. But considering that two of the strongest songs on the record(s) are the ones that lean on veterans Cyndi Lauper and kd lang (“Beecharmer” and “we had it right”, respectively), it shows that as talented as McKay is, there’s still much she can learn.
But watching and listening to the process is quite gratifying, even if it means having to sit through (or skip past) ill-advised rap-dramas like “Mama & Me”. So while I can empathize with Columbia’s position on the now-ancient history kerfuffle, I remain steadfastly on Team Nellie. And as critics go, I’m not alone. It’s unclear what sort of touring or promotion will be undertaken for this record (this is when you miss the major label pockets, I guess) but my understanding is that even when she hits the road, she’ll be pulling a Mozzer and giving Canada a pass as means of protest over the seal hunts in Newfoundland. Because obviously that’s something that her fans in Toronto have a whole lot of control over. Thanks a lot.
Maybe making a post about hardcore vegan McKay on a day when millions of her countrymen will be devouring turkeys isn’t the most appropriate, but whatever.
I got passed a copy of the debut, self-titled album from London’s The Early Years this week and while I don’t want to get into it too much just yet, I’ll just say that if a mix of Velvet Underground, Stereolab, Six By Seven, Spiritualized and early Verve sound up your alley, you should check this out. The album isn’t out stateside till late next January but in the meantime, you can sample some of their brew below including an exclusive MP3. I’ll surely be talking more about them come next year.