Nellie McKay - Obligatory Villagers

Nellie McKay
Obligatory Villagers

(Hungry Mouse/Vanguard)

First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2007, Volume 14, #10

Written by John Metzger

Thu October 11, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT


Credit this to Nellie McKay: Although Obligatory Villagers is her third endeavor, she hasnít lost the ability to either shock or surprise her audience. With appearances by vocalists Bob Dorough and Nancy Reed as well as saxophonist David Liebman, she also extends her reach in attracting talent and attention from all corners of the music business. At the same time, though, she unfortunately continues to struggle with putting it all together in a cohesive fashion, and despite the brevity of Obligatory Villagers, especially by her standards ó her previous efforts both were sprawling two-disc affairs ó the album still feels like a jumbled mess.

Both lyrically and musically, McKay seems to be fighting with herself, and to put it bluntly, Obligatory Villagers offers a prime glimpse at a classic case of an ego-driven overachiever who, despite her strong presence, also lacks self-confidence. Rather than allowing her work to unfurl naturally, McKay presses herself to outdo the cleverness of her past accomplishments. Consequently, she winds up selling herself short by forcing words, themes, sounds, and styles to fit into her own predetermined vision of what her music should be. On Mother of Pearl, for example, she attempts to craft a Randy Newman-esque skewering of male chauvinism by attacking feminist ideals, but the results arenít terribly observant or insightful. Livin, a 24-second ditty that sounds like a Monty Python skit that is set in Munchkinland, fares even worse. By contrast, the socially conscious tirade Identity Theft as well as Galleonís peek into the backstage world are bitingly comical, poignant, and entertaining.

No one can deny that, over the course of three albums, McKay has developed her own unique style, and with Obligatory Villagers, she once again succeeds in breaking down the barriers that tend to separate one genre from the next. At times, her vocals hint at hip-hop and rap (Gin Rummy and Testify), and within her music she manages to incorporate everything from disco (Testify) to calypso (Identity Theft) to the sorts of girl-group (Galleon) and Bacharach-ian (Gin Rummy) pop flavors that were fashionable in the 1960s. She attempts to tie it all together by crafting giant-sized arrangements that blur big-band jazz with Broadway architectures, but aside from her sophisticated approach, the effort never quite coalesces.

To say that Obligatory Villagers is a strange album is certainly an understatement. Right from the start, the effort turns delightfully weird when McKay stuffs a tap-dancing interlude, which she scores with a ukelele, inside the piano-bar musings of Mother of Pearl. By its end, however, Obligatory Villagers has grown tedious and wearisome, which is extremely problematic for an endeavor that lasts less than 32 minutes. It seems that thereís a fine line between being charmingly whimsical and foolishly annoying, and this time, McKay just barely stays on the right side of it. starstarstar

Obligatory Villagers is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


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