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Wunderkind needs some direction

I'm trying very hard to be angry with Nellie McKay.

By Josh Korr
Published December 5, 2006


I'm trying very hard to be angry with Nellie McKay.

I want to zing the 24-year-old pop wunderkind for pulling a Prince and fighting with her record label over the length of her new album, Pretty Little Head. They wanted 16 songs; she insisted on 23. They said bye-bye; she released it on her own.

But it's hard to gripe too much about having to wait for music this exciting and witty . . . even if the evil execs were partly right.

McKay is a Randy Newman for the blogger generation. On the pianist's absurdly accomplished debut, 2004's Get Away From Me, she melded a fluency in jazz and classic pop with a chameleonic embrace of seemingly every modern style. As a lyricist, she was by turns cheeky ("I wanna get married/I need to cook meals/I wanna pack cute little lunches/For my Brady Bunches/Then read Danielle Steel") and acerbic ("Look at you, you're young/Havin' so much fun/Gonna be a star/Blah blah blah").

Pretty Little Head is looser and not as fully formed as her first album - seven songs are shorter than two minutes - but the melodies are stronger and the musical exploration broader.

Yodel combines The Sound of Music and the Band for a catchy minute-and-a-half songlet. I Am Nothing, featuring McKay's mournful cello (she also handles percussion and production duties), could have been in Fiddler on the Roof - or The Nightmare Before Christmas. The charming Beecharmer finds McKay and Cyndi Lauper making '80s pop thoroughly respectable.

McKay's songs are full of surprise. The Down Low's rigid, minor-key rhythm breaks open into a major-key, tambourine-dance bridge.

Mama & Me has some unexpected lines: "See I been livin' with my mama/Since I was an embryo/Never had Nintendo/saw a lot of Brecht though." But the otherwise embarrassing rap song represents the downside of McKay's possible genius: the hubris that comes with it.

Artistic integrity is all well and good, but Pretty Little Head would have been better off slimmed down and properly marketed. McKay may be the most unique figure in rock since the late, great Elliott Smith. But if she ends up stunting herself by refusing help and willfully avoiding a bigger audience, then I'll really be mad at her.

Josh Korr can be reached at jkorr@sptimes.com