AKIE BERMISS: I didn’t know very much about Nellie McKay before her latest album, Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute To Doris Day. I do know Doris Day, however. The singer who is made so many songs famous 40s and 50s. She sang, she danced, she acted the part — and she was marvelous. Curiously, there are not many Doris Day-like female roles around these days (not without having a sardonic subtext usually) and so, in many respects, she was the last of her kind. The last perfect, virginal ingenue of Hollywood’s golden era.
So I was curious to hear that a modern artist — McKay — was going to do a tribute to her. I think for many of us who have only been conscious for the last few decades, Doris Day is not considered a musical icon. Her work for Animal Rights is probably how most of us know her if we know her at all. So it got me to thinking, this could be a pretty interesting take on Day.
Well, like I said, I knew nothing of Nellie McKay when I got the album. And all that I know of her now is the album. And, let’s just say, I’m impressed. I wasn’t over-whelmed by the album very much. But probably this is due mostly to McKay’s musical approach in general which is very laid back and relax almost to a point of absurdity. I know there is an impression of Day as being emblematic of that un-hysterical feminine ideal of the 50s (I was just saying that myself, in fact), but I wouldn’t have hurt to have a little more fire on some of the cuts. The understatement is almost comical at times.
But I should stress the point that it is only almost comical. It never quite goes to overboard. And just when I started to think this would be the moment when I couldn’t take the record seriously anymore — some new feature of the song would jump out. Be it a haunting marimba or a creeping horn bass line.
Kudos to McKay for the unconventional arrangements — which also make the album a success, in my mind. When doing a tribute to the singers of old there’s usually two routes to take: the full-on studio orchestra route or the conventional jazz combo (trio or quartet, perhaps) route. That can make a lot of tribute albums hard to get through because, if you’re hip to the music, you’ve heard it a million times before in both settings. McKay brilliantly utilizes sparse — very nearly spartan – arrangements of piano, guitar, flute, marimba, and percussion. There are horns on a few tracks and backing vocals on a few tracks as well. Some tracks feature nothing more than a few instruments going back and forth in a counterpoint that is seemingly disconnected from the melody. Others have a more cohesive and familiar style with a real rhythm section. But in each instance you will witness how each element is employed only when it absolutely must be to retain the aesthetic of the music. Its truly a magnificent feat of studio arranging. It doesn’t sound stilted or over-stylized. Just perfectly crumbled together to make delicious track after track.
And I want to pause her to commend McKay for having pianist and singer Bob Dorough come up with a few arrangments that compliment hers perfectly. Another sign of her hipness — hanging tough with Dorough (one of my favorite musicians).
Mckay is also either borrowing or independently inherited Day’s classy, straight-forward delivery. The enunciation is practically without flaw. Each word executed precisely. A style of singing that has long since been given up as old and uninteresting. But in a world where everyone goes for the idiosyncratic, it is startling refreshing to hear songs sung so precisely with no damage being done to the feeling or the swinging. All the vocals are also very close and tight in the mix. Not much reverb or effects pads and so you get a very intimate feeling when you listen to the Normal As Blueberry Pie.
In the end, my complaints were few and my enjoyment was great. I love Doris Day. And now, I love Nellie McKay. The time has come, perhaps, for me to check out McKay’s back catalog and see what she’s done with her own music. Normal As Blueberry Pie is a fine way to ring in the New Year. A good easy lope in to 2010 with great songs and great arrangement. And a wonderful singer to lead the way.
HOWARD MEGDAL: I can’t remember the last time I was as excited to discover an artist. Nellie McKay will feature prominently in my 2010 playlists, and Normal as Blueberry Pie is a worthy addition to her music, which I have been discovering in reverse order or release dates.
I agree with Akie’s larger points about the album-her singing style and ability to enunciate lyrics is especially important when singing her own sharply-barbed creations-but I want to take a few moments to highlight some individual songs.
The Very Thought of You is so often entirely too heavy. It is a song of a woman in love- so often, it comes across like a burdened woman instead. Her version is dreamlike- perfectly executed.
Do Do Do can be so trite- but it isn’t in Mckay’s capable grip- it is just fun. Same with Wonderful Guy.
The best track on the album, as far as I’m concerned, in Mean to Me. I think McKay’s version is the best I’ve heard, save Ella in her version made with Nelson Riddle. It is bittersweet, not bitter. It’s how the song should be presented, I think, and maybe it is just that McKay can’t help but bring a certain sweetness to any song. But it’s perfection, too.
There’s not a song on the album to skip over. And when you’re finished, head on over to Obligatory Villagers and begin with Mother of Pearl, a pointed and laugh-out-loud funny song. But don’t rush through Normal As Blueberry Pie. It’s one of the best albums of 2009.