Nellie McKay - Get Away From Me

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Nellie McKay
Get Away From Me


It takes a moment to realize how much is incongruous on the cover of Get Away From Me. Here is a cherubic, perfectly white girl (nothing about her says woman) raising her arms in a gesticulation of ecstatic glee, cocking her head inside a (little) red (riding) hood and grinning for all the world like Ronald McDonald. Or… wait, is it the Joker from Batman? And hey, what’s she doing set in front of a rundown, graffitoed, scaffolded cement wall? Most of all – what the heck is the Explicit Lyrics Advisory square doing in the corner of the image?

As it turns out, this sly study in contrasts is the perfect image to complement the music within. McKay’s piano and her singing are like her face – adorable, and nearly flawless by traditional standards. The wit behind them, though, is formidable, frequently nasty and never, ever, conventional.

McKay (that's pronounced McKEYE), who recorded Get Away From Me at the age of 19, is a talented pianist and a singer, and she has created an artistic niche all to herself - subversive lounge music. That’s not this pony’s only trick, though. This is an almost perversely eclectic album – at various points one is reminded of the best bits of Tori Amos, Norah Jones (whose debut title provided the fodder for this album’s), Alanis Morisette, Sade, Meryn Cadell and more. The remarkable thing is not the variety but its success - McKay slips effortlessly from style to style and persona to persona, seemingly instinctively applying all the right touches - the breathiness in “I Wanna Get Married,” the belligerence in “Inner Peace,” the the flash of Marlene Dietrich in “Ding Dong,” the audible, cutesy pucker in “Won’t U Please B Nice.”

Moreover, there’s an unmissable sophistication here. When McKay uses one of the words that earned her the Parental Advisory (as she does in many of the songs), it’s patently not for lack of vocabulary - the other diction on this album would delight any English teacher. Topics range from human cloning (“Clonie”) to the joys of pet adoption (“The Dog Song”) to the universal moral inferiority of the male gender (“It’s a Pose”) and references are made to everything from Orson Welles to Paul Wellstone to Fritz Lang to Goethe. Moreover, what McKay calls “the stupid way I rhyme” is in fact a fluid, intricate thing that weaves in and out of successive lines, reminiscent at times of Sondheim - or Chuck D. The combination, when added to Geoff Emerick’s intimate production, rewards repeat listening.

The masterpiece of the album is the cryptically titled “Toto Dies,” which includes the most compelling musical conceit for the insidious banlity of modern life in the West since Sting’s use of the Loch Ness Monster in “Synchronicity II.” The lives of its anonymous and pathologically disconnected characters (“Yeah, I’ll have my coffee black / Hey, look, we’re bombing Iraq”) are synchronistically pervaded by the sounds of drums, bells and a vocal refrain that recalls the Wicked Witch of the West’s martial theme and sounds less silly and more sinister with every listen.

This is the only album I can name where torch songs and f-the-system raps coexist, and I’d venture that it’s the only one in the world where they coexist this well. As she croons in the opener, “David,” “Listen to her play / has something to say / even has a rap / clap, clap, clap.” In the context of the song, her point is the old saw that while adulation and respect are all very nice the only reason anyone ever really makes art is for sex. Subtract the irony, however, and it’s a fine synopsis of this phenomenal debut.