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Attack of the Clones?

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Nellie McKay, “Get Away From Me” (Columbia)
Katie Melua, “Call Off The Search” (Universal)

I’m a sucker for precocious youngsters. Having passed forever out of precocious youngsterhood a few years ago, I remain deeply impressed by people who can, at an improbably young age, turn out an album of assured, complete, and ambitious songs that deserve a wide audience. However, I’m frequently disappointed with the followup. In 1999, I was very much taken by Ben Kweller’s self-released EP, “Freak Out It’s Ben Kweller!” His super-ballad “Butterflies” was possibly my favorite song of that year, and his Vanilla Ice redux “BK Baby” was improbably fun. However, his follow-on major label debut, 2002’s “Sha Sha” (ATO) lacked the same flair, possibly because recording in an actual studio with Dave Matthews’ money made him choke a little when the time came to deliver. Ditto Erin McKeown, a Massachusetts singer whose second album, “Distillation” (Signature Sounds) is still one of my favorites. A pixieish woman who plays hot jazz guitar, McKeown mined Tin Pan Alley and some weird angry side of her subconsious to create a strong and diverse set of songs. “Queen of Quiet,” “Blackbirds” and “La Petite Mort” crackled with creativity, brilliance, and masterful performances, and a small bidding war ensued for her among indie labels. Unfortunately her next album, last year’s “Grand” (Nettwerk) was notable mainly because McKeown abandoned her strengths to experiment with new genres and forms with the result that for the moment her reach exceeds her grasp.

So now when faced with the prospect of some ambitous new hotness, I tend to hesistate lest I sign on to follow the career of an artist who will within two years disappear into his or her own navel. I am especially hesitant to embrace releases by young female jazz singers these days, since every label in the universe seems determined to build their future on cloning Norah Jones. Nellie McKay and Katie Melua are both nineteen years old, both have preciousness just coming out their ears, both grew up in itinerant circumstances (Melua moving from Moscow to Georgia (the Black Sea Georgia) to Belfast, McKay shuttling between the East and West Coasts in a VW van), and both have chosen to be jazz chanteuses on their debut albums. But for all the similarities, McKay and Melua could hardly have turned out more differently. Where Nellie McKay kicks against the stereotype, dead set on being different from Norah Jones in every way, Katie Melua seems dead set on jumping Jones’s claim.

Nellie McKay has already cut her teeth singing in New York clubs, and her official bio claims that she sometimes writes a song a week (precocious, indeed!). Her album cover tells you almost everything you need to know about what’s inside. On it, McKays’ apple-cheeked face is ringed with cherubic red-blonde curls as she throws her arms skyward in a Mary Tyler Moore moment. She wears a bright Red Riding Hood coat and is in general completely adorable. Behind her is a grafitti-covered wall and construction scaffolding. Her name and the album title (“Get Away From Me”) are in yellow, with her name written in a jaunty serif font that brings to mind swingin’ releases from the golden age of crooners on LP. The back cover proudly proclaims McKay to be “A Proud Member of PETA.”

The title tells you the rest. Part a response to being lumped in with the fuzzy jazz noodlings the Norah Jones Clone Army (Amazon has bundled “Get Away” with Jones’ new album– get both for $25!), and part a psycho-girlfriend outburst, Nellie McKay’s audacious debut album is far more entertaining than all the jokiness and contrivance I’ve mentioned would initially suggest. Mostly dealing with issues dear to the heart of any 19 year old (boys, hypocrisy, sunshine, death threats, alienation, and issuing death threats to hypocritical boys), McKay and producer Geoff Emerick (of Beatles fame) envelop her self-written cabaret-style songs and droll, dark-toned voice in a shiny mix of piano, strings, and a skintight rhythm combo. But where Norah Jones and fellow travellers like Diana Krall make timid albums that threaten to be little more than pleasant background music, McKay enlivens “Get Away From Me” with adventurous writing, sharp and witty lyrics, and a scary yet bubbly personality. One might be tempted to draw comparisons to Fiona Apple and Tori Amos, but where Apple comes off as a poetry-obsessed neurotic and Tori Amos seems dangerously unhinged, Nellie McKay steps right past them with great talent, a smart sensibility, and– unlike Fiona and Tori– a sense of humor. Also, where Fiona and Tori seem always on the brink of carving their initials into their arms with a pencil, I get the feeling Nellie McKay is more likely to carve her initials into yours.

In 18 tracks over two discs (a nice contrivance meant to evoke the lost art of the album side) McKay explores everything from reggae to torchlit balladry, with stops at jump blues, perky rock, and rap. Yes, rap. On “Sari” McKay raps convincingly about every petty thing that irritates her (including herself) in a laconic flow that, though obviously coached, still hits harder than P. Diddy’s best attempt at a rhyme. Elsewhere, her more conventional songwriting efforts display similar ambition. The jaunty depression song “Ding Dong” manages to simultaneously evoke Frank Zappa and commercial jingles, “Baby Watch Your Back” detours into canned jazz-funk that works far better than it should, and the album opener “David” is colored heavily by reggae. Her voice and piano playing are up to the genre hopping, and even the songs that don’t quite work redeem themselves through sheer bravado and the saving grace of a well-turned lyric. Vocally, she reminds me a little of Anita O’Day and Chicago oddball Holly Cole. Her pitch is good, her voice is strong, and like Cole she tends to over-enunciate her vowels and “r’s” in a way that makes her sound positively aggressive.

Her lyrics are Nellie McKays’ strong suit, and “Get Away From Me” demonstrates a refreshing talent for acid tirades that would put the great masters of invective to shame. “Clonie” is a narcissistic ode to the “apple of my eye, and “the only person I have ever loved”– her own clone– and “Won’t you Please Be Nice” warns her man “if we part, I’ll eat your heart, so won’t you please be nice.” “It’s A Pose” is a rant against men, men, men! in general, whose thesis is that all men are pigs, so using the filthy swine for pleasure isn’t really a problem. The second verse goes:

You’re preenin’ in your armchair
and I’m steamin’ at your knee
go on pontificatin’ like I care
Peter Lorre, then a story about AC/DC
Harvard-educated, frustrated dictator
tyrant with a PhD
. . . . . . . . .
but hey hey hey
that ain’t nothin’ to do with you
you’re a sensitive Joe, I’m forgettin’
but every woman knows
it’s a pose, just a pose, just a pose.

It’s hard to say whether Nellie McKay will be able to live up to the promises she has made on “Get Away From Me.” For all the accomplishment and bravado, it is still very much the product of someone young. A couple songs, notably “Work Song,” which unconvincingly evokes the terror of a dead-end job, and “Inner Peace,” in which McKay realizes she’s not unique, make it clear that she has room to grow as a writer. As long as she can avoid the usual traps; spiralling off into craziness (like Anita O’Day, Tori Amos or Laura Nyro), drugs, (Anita O’Day again), or her own navel (Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, coffeehouse casualties everywhere), I expect the Nellie McKay of the future to be dangerously happy showstopping boatload of fun who sometimes scares us terribly.

Katie Melua’s debut album “Call Off The Search” features a cover shot of her with dark curls and a black leather jacket, holding a nylon-string guitar and sitting on a stool under a single overhead light. The rest of the cover is black– “none more” black. Just as precocious in her way as Nellie McKay (she already has had a #1 hit in Britain with “Closest Thing to Crazy”), Melua has chosen to explore the quieter side of jazz vocals with a fleet of songs mainly by songwriter Mike Batt, with covers of John Mayall and Randy Newman. Melua’s album has already gone platinum in the UK, and it’s clear that Universal is hoping to make Melua a crossover success, this year’s sonic wallpaper for the Audi set’s summer soirees.

It will be impossible for Melua to dodge comparison with Norah Jones since they are essentially mining adjacent claims. But where Norah has channelled her pop sensibilities toward country and tentative stabs at soul, Melua takes a different tack, pursuing the folkier sounds of Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, and Van Morrison. And where Nellie McKay spends her time being explicit about everything she says– to a fault– Katie Melua is content to suggest, insinuate, and understate. The trouble is, there is a fine line between understatement and snoozing. “Call Off The Search” recalls at times Nick Drake’s “Bryter Layter” and Van Morrison’s “Veedon Fleece,” two other albums which luxuriate in soft textures and barely upbeat tempos. However, “Bryter Layter” was redeemed by Drake’s preternatually acute folk sensibility, and “Veedon Fleece” by Morrison’s obessive journey to the center of his lyrics. Despite a few highlights– the title track, the self-penned “Belfast,” and “Closest Thing to Crazy,” in general “Call off the Search” too often rolls over and goes to sleep.

The overall impression I get from this album is of some very pleasant and indeed beautiful arrangements marred by some fairly bad lyrics and boring writing. For example, “Tiger in the Night” includes the mediocre Blake re-write, “You are the tiger burning bright, deep in the forest of my mind, all my life I never knew, you were the dream I see come true, you are the tiger burning bright,” over an arrangement that sounds a great deal like Van Morrison’s “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights.” “Mockingbird Song” attempts to revive the nursery rhyme with vodka shots that fail to rescue the song from triteness. “My Aphrodisiac Is You” aims to evoke the wonder of being in lust. Unfortunately, a mellow arrangement (especially an ill-considered soprano sax), Melua’s languid delivery and an unfocused lyric sap “Aphrodisiac” of the visceral punch it ought to pack, considering the subject.

As mentioned, Melua’s first single, “The Closest Thing to Crazy,” is already a monster hit in Britain; in fact the Queen is even on record as liking it, and it is here we can see Melua’s future if she’s lucky. “Crazy” yokes the album’s torpid sound to a nice lyric in the style of late period Elvis Costello, and Melua bites off the ends of lines ruefully, like she means it. It’s easy to see why the song was a hit with a chorus that goes

This is the closest thing to crazy I have ever been
Feeling twenty-two, acting seventeen,
This is the nearest thing to crazy I have ever known,
I was never crazy on my own…
And now I know that there’s a link between the two,
Being close to craziness and being close to you.

However, even here Melua’s bravado vocal performance can’t break through of the sleepy haze that envelops the arrangement, and the song ends up hamstrung by these limitations.

All this is not to say that Katie Melua isn’t talented. Although her voice is not yet up to the heavy lifting that jazz singing requires (she has yet to develop a wide palette of vocal expression, her breath support is sometimes lacking, and her pitch can be hit or miss) if she can harness the earthy smokiness that comes so naturally to her and links it up with a better set of songs and more ambitious arrangements, I’d give her another listen. She is still developing as a songwriter, and unlike McKay, she hasn’t yet had a chance to vet her songs in front of paying audiences night after night after night.

If I had to choose one of these two artists and place $500 on whose third album is more likely to be an all-time classic, I have to admit that I’d almost be stumped. On one hand, Nellie McKay has chutzpah and charisma coming out her ears, and those attributes get her through some flat patches of songwriting. But it’s hard to tell whether she’s emptied her clip on the first try; what comes next is either going to stun or suck. On the other hand, Katie Melua’s first album is a workmanlike piece of folky jazz-blues that will go over huge at suburban PTA meetings and will probably be the listen of choice at cocktail parties in Vail, East Hampton, and Provincetown for the rest of the year. That practical assurance of success might get her through the difficult next phase of her development in which she finds her own voice, and if it does she may well end up an affable hybrid of Cassandra Wilson and Carole King. However, it may also be true that Melua is a one hit wonder of the British variety, blessed with one good song and a lifetime of resolute mediocrity.

As far as I’m concerned, the deck is stacked against artists who don’t take chances. At nineteen you should be either too drunk or too stupid to know there are things you aren’t allowed to do. A listen to some artists’ early albums– “Never Mind the Bollocks,” the Clash, the Ramones, Elvis’ first Sun sessions, even the Flaming Lips’ long out of print first EP– burn with a thrilling audaciousness born of wild ignorance. The artists I mentioned at the opening of this piece– Ben Kweller and Erin McKeown– first caught my ears because they were doing something it seemed they shouldn’t be doing. The danger as I see it is that, for a young singer or songwriter, it’s much easier to teach someone restraint than it is to teach them originality. Nellie McKay passes that test with flying colors, and although her next album could be a disaster, I am much less confident that Katie Melua’s next album is going to even take that chance.

(Also appears at The Ministry of Minor Perfidy)

Katie Melua mediaplayer

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About John Owen

  • The Theory

    Good review. I picked up the Nellie McKay album a number of months back and really enjoyed it. Been a while since I’ve listened to it, though, so I’ll need to pull that back out.

  • Eric Olsen

    very serious, informative and well-written review, Johno, thanks!

  • I agree with your take on both artists. I especially like McKay’s dark number, Inner Peace. The Dog Song is great too. I’ve got her double-CD, and there is at most one track that I don’t care for.

  • wulfen

    Blithering ravings of a self indulgent and opinionated dork who thinks he knows music. No matter what your opinions are, the true nature of these gifted singers shows through their ever growing fans selling volume.