If you’ve ever listened to bits of former teenage sensation Nellie McKay, you might be turned off to her usually playful, sometimes childish, definitely odd lyrical writing and musical sensibility. She came up around the same time that Norah Jones did, and both had similar leanings toward jazz. However, Nellie’s debut album was cleverly titled Get Away From Me to contrast Norah’s debut Come Away With Me.
It’s more of a firm proclamation of what music Nellie wants to make and less of a dig on the music Norah makes. Nellie is one of those rare artists that is extremely passionate about the music, just look at her spats with her label executives.
These spats have delayed her music from being released in a more timely fashion, but Nellie’s third album Obligatory Villagers is out and without too much internal hassle. The most notable difference between her latest work and her previous albums is the length. Her debut and sophomore release, Pretty Little Head, were double disc efforts clocking in at least 60-minutes. Villagers plays a brisk 31-minutes.
Like many fans, this writer is disappointed that there is less Nellie to listen to, but Nellie’s music doesn’t disappoint. Nellie’s creative songwriting continues with the opener “Mother of Pearl” (“feminists don’t have a sense of humor / feminists just want to be alone / feminists spread vicious lies and rumor”), but it has a mellower tone than previous upbeat, light-hearted tracks like “David” or “Toto Dies.”
Overall there’s a more mature feel and a greater variety of genre-mixing and technique usage. There’s a big band-like intro in “Oversure,” an electric guitar solo in “Galleon,” a brief group sing-along in “Lovin,” and a duet with Nancy Reed in “Politan.” It’s interesting through all of these experiments (if you could call them that) that these songs still sound like Nellie McKay songs.
With her previous double-disc albums, there was a sense that Nellie was able to do creatively whatever she wanted and did so. Here, Nellie sounds more restrained, which probably has to do with the fact that Nellie was joined by many different musicians and thus needed to be more focused on the musical direction (especially since she orchestrated all of the tracks), in addition to maintaining flexibility in such a collaborative environment.
Nellie blends her vocals perfectly with the smooth jazz mood in “Gin Rummy,” controls what would seem like a manic presence in “Identity Theft,” and never gets carried away in the anthem-like “Testify.” Amusingly, Nellie closes the album with the very playful, new dance move-starting “Zombie.” A music video would be both amusing and informative. Nellie McKay always sounds like she’s having fun, and Obligatory Villagers is no exception.