Nellie McKay, “Get Away From Me”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #78 – released February 10, 2004)

Track listing: David / Manhattan Avenue / Sari / Ding Dong / Baby Watch Your Back / The Dog Song / Waiter / I Wanna Get Married / Change The World / It’s A Pose / Toto Dies / Won’t U Please B Nice / Inner Peace / Suitcase Song / Work Song / Clonie / Respectable / Really

“The debut of the year, possibly the decade,” is what I wrote about Get Away From Me when it placed #4 on my 2004 year-end albums list. I stand by those words today, even if Nellie McKay’s subsequent career hasn’t lived up to those expectations. Despite the considerable media attention accompanying Columbia’s release of her debut, this 22-year-old singer-songwriter was never going to pose anything resembling a commercial threat to the likes of Norah Jones (the title parodies Jones’ own massive 2002 debut Come Away With Me.) Still, so dazzling and fully-formed was McKay’s talent right from the start, I did not expect her to sink into relative obscurity so quickly.

Perhaps this exchange I had with a record store clerk (at the late, lamented Disc Diggers in Somerville) anticipated her fate. As I picked up a copy of the album weeks after its release, he asked me, “Have you heard this? She’s talented but man, she is precocious.” He wasn’t exaggerating, for much of McKay’s initial appeal stemmed from her audacity to mix and match genres at the drop of a hat and do so with an impeccable confidence (and considerable profanity.) Early on, she received comparisons to both Doris Day and Eminem; although only “Sari” and maybe “Work Song” come close to such a mashup, the tag stuck in part because it aptly summarized what made McKay so unique. Young, blonde and wholesome-looking, she’s physically a dead ringer for Day and her obvious affection for jazz and torch balladry syncs up well (so much that her fourth album would be a Day tribute.) But don’t be fooled, for she can be nearly as much of an irreverent, confrontational wiseass as Marshall Mathers (minus the misogyny and homophobia, of course.)

Still, enough of Get Away From Me falls so completely outside even that spectrum, leaving one ill-advised to reduce McKay to a descriptive soundbite. “Ding Dong”, for instance, really has no precedent: it’s like a jazzy novelty song on the order of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’ “Twisted”, only sui generis—she expertly uses the “show, don’t tell” narrative rule here, expressing her burgeoning lunacy not only via a peculiar point of view (“My cat died / so I quickly poured myself some gin / Did he die of old age / or was it for my sins?”) but also in her idiosyncratic, often legato or drunken delivery (“died” becomes “di-i-ied”, “lighter” rendered as “LIE-ter”) with ample help from an arrangement crisp with staccato piano and whimsical chimes.

After I placed the song on a mix for my friend Bruce, he amiably referred to McKay as a “delightful nutjob”, two words that capture her appeal more fully than any artist comparison could. Only someone of that exact description would ever insist on releasing her hour-long major label debut that could easily fit onto one disc as a double CD (and really, a half hour of McKay at a time is easier to digest), or rhyme “God, I’m so German” with “Ethel Merman”, or kick things off with catchy, scat-and-sound-effect-enhanced reggae-pop (“David”) and immediately follow with a smoky jazz ballad (“Manhattan Avenue”), a wonky, ultra-modern rap seething with spat-out, rapid-fire phrases (“Sari”) and, well, “Ding Dong”!

Before one accuses McKay of showing off, however, note that she’s neither a dilettante nor an opportunist (you think she thought these tunes would ever crack top 40 radio?) Get Away From Me still endures and excites not only for showcasing the unfurling of a considerable talent but also for seemingly not imposing any boundaries on it. More often than not, you come away from these peculiar little songs, their nagging melodies and detail-rich arrangements lodged in your brain, wondering where they came from and how you ever lived without them and why the rest of the world has next-to-no knowledge that they exist.

If unconvinced, start with the most traditional jazz ballad stuff. Sure, “Manhattan Avenue” and its musical cousins “Really” and “I Wanna Get Married” could pass for Doris Day with flying colors in a blind test from a musical standpoint. Of course, Day in her day would never sing a lyric such as “What strange a vice / that a mugger and a child / should share the same paradise,” much less get across the irony of wanting to “pack lunches for my Brady Bunches”—as a young woman in 2004, you expect, nay, demand McKay to do both. But she takes the knowing charade a couple steps further. Sure, when she sings “that’s why I was born” as the inevitable punch line to “I Wanna Get Married”, it’s all good postmodern fun, but what about when she unexpectedly, if sweetly discloses, “I’m such a shiiiiiiitttt,” in “Really” (remarkably similar to how Rufus Wainwright claimed he didn’t want to be “John Llllithgow” in “Want”)? Is she playing a part, having a laugh, or actually revealing something deeper about herself? Her poker-faced conviction is solid enough to leave one guessing and intrigued.

Next, consider songs where she’s a little more upfront about where she stands. “It’s a Pose” rousingly opens the second disc in upbeat, boogie-woogie swing mode (another thing she shares with Wainwright—nearly every track here is, to quote Nina Simone, a “show tune for a show that hasn’t been written yet”), but it’s just a heaping spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of calling out faux male feminists smoothly go down. “Sari” (just another word for “sorry”, which, she emphatically, repeatedly claims, she’s not) might rush by in a blur of swagger and tongue-twisting wordplay (“When you’re female and you’re fenced in and / Phen-phened to no end”) but overall, you’re left with more than a glimpse of the singer’s motivations and ideology, even as she argues, “You can hear what’s on my lips but you don’t know what’s in my mind!”

As a manifesto, “Respectable” is more clear-cut. After a melodic up-and-down carousel of an intro (like “The Windmills of Your Mind” at warp speed), the music briefly, almost entirely drops out for McKay to deliver a cautionary tale of “a rich boy” who “wants to do right” but “has to subscribe to the rules of the tribe.” The arrangement gradually builds back up, reaching full flower in the brilliant chorus of “You’re the respectable member of society / but you don’t have nothin’ on me.” From there, McKay never wavers, nimbly shifting to a flamenco bridge (complete with castanets!) without breaking a sweat, embedding a message within a catchy melody without being preachy.

Still, the less McKay dilutes her oddness or relinquishes her ambiguity, the better. By the time “Waiter” arrives, the last thing any listener expects from her is a stab at Eurodisco, but that’s exactly what it is, and it’s spectacular. Instantly, you recognize both the genre tropes (an insistent drum machine rhythm, sighing strings, drawn out, Bee Gees-worthy “ahhh’s”) and how well they mesh with McKay’s by-now-familiar vocal affectations. Also, that crescendo she builds from the bridge to the chorus packs a mighty wallop, actually sending this ditty about dining out amidst hearing about the “end” of the Iraq War into euphoric overdrive (and that’s before her sudden, equally ridiculous and sublime quoting of the Tin Pan Alley standard “Carolina In The Morning” surfaces over the song’s outro.)

On that note, would another singer-songwriter dare risk resembling the funkier, more frenzied music Joe Raposo composed for vintage Sesame Street (“Baby Watch Your Back”) or ever think to alternate martial beats with a pea-soup, pea-soup shuffle, sing “Okay, Dr. Phil, / Ready, for my pill,” and call the whole thing “Change The World” (as in, “Does it really matter if I…”)? Who else could credibly survive the shift from “That’s what it’s all about,” to “bow-wow-wou-out,” in “The Dog Song” or inject the iconic “OH-WEEE-OH” from The Wizard Of Oz into a driving mélange of tango rhythms, pizzicato piano and strings and call it “Toto Dies”? Or come off like a goofier (and still scarier) younger sister to Fiona Apple on “Inner Peace”? Or further sweeten the altogether daft bubblegum of “Clonie” with flutes and plonking xylophones and conclude on that most stereotypical of “Chinese” melodic cues?

McKay threads a fine line—rarely more precariously or marvelously than on “Won’t U Please B Nice” (note the Prince-inspired spelling.) Another jazzy throwback a la “I Wanna Get Married”, the music could’ve been recorded anytime since 1955. Although McKay sings coquettishly like Blossom Dearie or, better yet, Marilyn Monroe, what comes out of her mouth is an entirely different matter. She begins by beckoning her fella to sit close to her, only to warn him on descendant notes, “If you don’t / I’ll slit your throat,” before kindly asking the titular question. As she continues, her threats grow more… severe (“If you go / I’ll get your dough,” “Give me head / or you’ll be dead.”) And yet, she plays it all straight enough that, if you had no knowledge of her or her other music, the song could convincingly scan as either satire or the subversive musings of a damaged mind. That she goes out by quoting Chopin’s Funeral March (over which she lets out a gleeful “whee!”) is just the cherry on top.

Delightful Nutjobs, however, tend to become problematic whenever they seem less than charming and thus, merely nuts. Any career momentum McKay established with Get Away From Me was derailed a year later after her label delayed her second album, Pretty Little Head, because they wanted its 23 tracks over two discs pared down to a single. It was eventually released independently, uncut, in 2006; although it’s occasionally great (complete with kd lang and Cyndi Lauper duets), in this case the label was right—the 16-track version currently available for streaming is a much tighter, more rewarding listen.

Regardless, it pushed McKay back to the margins, where she’s since put out records both inspired (2007’s confounding, near-brilliant, and unusually concise political song cycle Obligatory Villagers) and indifferent (2010’s Home Sweet Mobile Home drones on by in a Lithium haze.) As of late, she’s mostly eschewed songwriting for interpretation with cover albums of 1960s pop (2015’s My Weekly Reader) and 3:00 AM torch ballads (the upcoming Sister Orchid.) Even though she never became a household name, you actually can hear her influence in everything from your finer YouTube song parodies to the lovably demented musical comedy TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (if co-creator/star Rachel Bloom, herself a likely precocious teen when Get Away From Me dropped, is unfamiliar with McKay, I’ll eat my CDs.) But forget about being ahead of (or behind) her time—McKay’s sensibility is decidedly outside time, forever, and all the better for it.

Up next: Mysteries of Love.

“Ding Dong”: