The first thing that struck me about Nellie McKay's new album, Obligatory Villagers, is that it was recorded in the small town of Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, about 3 miles from my grandparents' house in the infinitesimal town of Sciota, PA. Many of my fondest childhood memories are from that vast and solid 2-story white house, with a coal cellar, and heated by a coal stove. The meandering McMichael's creek was twenty steps from the front porch. At the end of the single-lane road to the right of the house, a historic grist mill overlooks a gentle waterfall, which spills under a small bridge that used to shelter us from rain as we fished for eel on summer nights.
On the back cover of the CD case, McKay dedicates this recording "to the memory of the Swiftwater Inn, Mount Airy Lodge, Henryville House, and the many other fast disappearing landmarks of the Poconos."
I thought for a moment that maybe she was getting soft. And then, before listening, I started reading the lyrics, and there was the bite, already, in the fifth line of the first song, Mother of Pearl, in which she rails against anti-feminists:
child molestation isn't funny
rape and degradation's just a crime
sex for money
can't these chicks to anything but whine
This ain't her Walden or Life In The Woods. This is still pure Nellie spunk and wit. Having read through the lyrics, though, I wondered where the fun was. After all, you can find all the commentary you need, and most that you don't, in the papers and blogs. How does the listener make a connection to these songs?
The music, of course. A word of advice: if you don't have the album yet, and you plan on buying it (which the Smudge recommends), don't make the mistake of reading the lyrics before listening to the music. Not that they're bad - on the contrary, they're characteristically brilliant, loaded with internal rhyme, interrupted meter, and a buttload of vocabulary. What you won't get from the lyrics alone is the balance that the playful and tightly played jazz provides.
The line "I've got no reason to live," from Politan, sounds much more comforting with a latin jazz background and flamenco guitar accents than it does sitting on the cold white page. And Zombie is pure musical fun, with a strutting bass line and a Halloween organ setting the stage for sax injections and human growls.
Sure, the teeth are still clenched, and the bitterness hasn't exactly been washed away by the peace of Pennsylvania creeks. Obligatory Villagers a strange and compelling marriage of hip jazz and whip-smart feminist anger. So this is what artistic freedom sounds like.
Nellie McKay - Politan (mp3)
Nellie Mckay - Zombie (mp3)
From Obligatory Villagers.