Nellie McKay

    Pretty Little Head


    In the delightful world that we call the music industry, ambition is a trait rewarded only after an artist has been able to line the coffers of record label muckeymucks. After a platinum hit, execs will indulge any sort of concept album or indulgent wankery, if only out of obligation. (Of course, if said risk fails, they can also drop the artist, but that’s another conversation.) However, Nellie McKay’s debut, 2004’s Get Away From Me, was not a platinum hit, and in order for it to be heard the way she intended, McKay felt compelled to part ways with Sony Music Entertainment and release Pretty Little Head on her own. I’m not intimately familiar with what led to this dissolution, but I can say that Sony fucked up just a bit. It may not have been in their nature, but it would have been in the label’s best interests to let McKay do whatever the hell she wanted on her follow-up album.


    Like Get Away From Me, Pretty Little Head is a double album. (Unlike Get Away From Me, it incorporates a smidge of filler.) The twenty-three songs showcased on Pretty Little Head could be called an embarrassment of riches, with only a few specific tracks (“Mama & Me,” “Pounce”) actual embarrassments. While a relatively hit-or-miss affair, Pretty Little Head passes muster on the strength of the twenty-three-year-old McKay’s undeniable charm and sparkle. She wants you to know just how prolific and uncompromising she is, and ultimately her songwriting skills serve as ample justification. The strongest tracks — such as the clever stagger of “The Big One” — provide compelling evidence of great forward strides.


    McKay has again assembled a professional ensemble of musicians to complement her, and the sound the full band provides adds a texture to the song cycle. That said, McKay’s lyrics and Rosemarie Clooney-in-Greenwich delivery are always the true stars. With “Pink Chandelier,” we have crushed-velvet cabaret and McKay beckoning “Hello stranger/ fellow stranger.” Immediately thereafter, we find her snarling “Upset, inbred/ white-trash glorious” on “There You Are in Me.” The stream-of-conscious raps that peppered her debut have been scaled back, replaced by relatively more traditional compositions, but the music is still deliciously unpredictable, and the words are a pack of SweeTart poetry.


    McKay is now an independent artist — all for taking risks that were no riskier than those she took while under the shadow of a major label. Never overestimate the intelligence of a record industry executive.