Twenty-five-year-old Nellie McKay has donned quite a few outfits in her time: stand-up comedian, PETA activist, Broadway star, and occasional rapper, to name some. In 2006, Pretty Little Head saw McKay deftly exploring her political and social interests, all the while balancing a keen pop sensibility with a penchant for throwback music such as big band and cabaret. And although stylistically all over the place, one thing McKay made very clear with Pretty Little Head was that she’s a risk-taker allergic to compromise, even if it meant getting dumped by her then record label Columbia. (The album was instead released on her own label, Hungry Mouse.)
Thankfully, on Pretty Little Head follow-up Obligatory Villagers, McKay shows no signs of taking the safe road. In sharp contrast to her past two albums (both double discs), Villagers is short: nine songs and thirty-one minutes. Also different is a focus in sound. Although Villagers swaggers confidently from swing, big-band and jazz arrangements, Broadway musicals (particularly on "Galleon," which was clearly influenced by McKay’s recent Broadway stint in the Weill/Brecht musical The Threepenny Opera), and even reggae ("Identity Theft"), it somehow communicates a sonic wholeness that was missing from past works. For this, let’s give credit where credit’s due: The album was recorded with hand-selected jazz musicians (and past mentors) from Pennsylvania’s Delaware Water Gap area, where McKay attended high school. McKay’s mature arrangements feel at home in the hands of such seasoned musicians, who provide a rollicking good time, no matter what genre they’re serving up.
What remains the same is McKay’s wry humor and social observations. On opener "Mother of Pearl," McKay discourses ideas of feminism from the perspective of a proponent ("Feminists have a tumor on their funny bone"), thus playing devil’s advocate to her own ideologies. On "Identity Theft," McKay pokes fun at a very real modern American society that thrives on paranoia, and where "idiots go to college to get dumbed down."
Obligatory Villagers is too short to be a fully realized performance piece, and it’s too kooky to be inducted into the jazz hall of fame anytime soon. But as far as Nelly McKay albums go, it is another welcome addition to what is shaping up to be a thrilling career.