PETA activist, Broadway star, scourge of the major record label and Doris Day afficionado, Nellie McKay is back and the world is a more sprightly and frolicsome place because of it. Home Sweet Mobile Home, McKay’s fifth album, is predominantly jazzy in the vein of her previous releases but also adventurous and genre-hopping. And though proceedings open with the sceptical political statement that “The New York Times invents the news”, for the most part McKay is more concerned with carousing than with social commentary.
One of the album’s most stirring songs, ‘Bruise On The Sky’ conveys the tormented emotional terrain of its narrator by focusing on the bleak physical landscape around her. But just as the song’s emotive strings and plaintive backing vocals reach a dramatic crescendo, it’s somewhat jarringly followed by a lighthearted ukulele number in the form of ‘Adios’. This clash is indicative of one of McKay’s few weaknesses; her fondness for whimsy at times threatens to wear on the nerves and erode the attention of the listener. Her twenty-three track opus Pretty Little Head was sporadically derailed by affectedly dotty and trivial interludes, and the problem recurs here. While her strong sense of the theatrical enables McKay to successfully glide between big band, jazz and pop styles, a handful of the songs here – particularly ‘Coosada Blues’ – are mid-tempo and musically soporific.
The highlights when they come, though, are polished, sparkling and often thoroughly charming. ‘Dispossessed’ is a wonderfully wicked big-band rebuke to a former lover that’s at once both barbed and gleeful, and tremendous fun. A welcome note of danger and a markedly sinister undertone enters on ‘Absolute Elsewhere’, a rock number that employs trumpet and saxophone to excellent dramatic effect. Perhaps the most unexpected turn here is ‘Caribbean Time’, a piece of unashamed reggae. Always a dangerous genre for white artists to dip their toes into, running the risk of conjuring up the haggard ghost of UB40, but McKay pulls the style off with skill, partly thanks to the playful knowingness and sense of pastiche that pervades the track. Her sense of fun and razor-sharp wit are McKay’s biggest assets, saving her when the album’s musical palette lacks drama and interest. Even if the music sometimes fails to grab the attention, the never-dull lyrics provide the much-needed dramatic rub.
McKay has repeatedly proven herself comfortable and relaxed performing jazzy pop and big band; now she can add reggae to that roster. To see her move out of her comfort zone more often on future releases and embrace a more jagged-edged, harsher sound would be truly exciting; however, it may be too much to expect from an artist who is a) already an accomplished jazz vocalist and b) who has a painted multi-coloured cat on her album cover. For now, this is a witty collection with a great sense of humour and some of the most beguiling lyrics going, and that is enough.
[Verve; September 27, 2010]
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