Although I don’t know her recordings well at all (I’ve heard two or three songs), what I do know was intriguing enough that I thought I’d check out Nellie McKay’s in-store performance at Atomic Records the other day. Things began somewhat inauspiciously: milling around the record shelves shoved into more crowded formation than usual to accommodate a piano and an audience, randomly checking out LP sleeves (it’s been forever since I looked at them – and I must admit, with few exceptions artwork certainly looks better at LP scale: maybe the thing should be to release CDs with large-scale artwork…), I realized the store was playing McKay’s most recent CD over the sound system…and I found myself thinking I didn’t much care for for the production, to the extent that the music was actually sort of…annoying. I was toying with just ducking out the door.
I’m glad I didn’t. A few minutes later, McKay arrived, resplendent in a pink dress and gold (I think) shoes (people who aren’t dumb guys like myself could no doubt describe both items, in terms of style, far better), looking rather as if she’d stepped straight from the pages of a ’50s fashion magazine. I’d seen photos of her before; she looked thinner in person, but her face retained the curious quality it has of being able to look both somewhat odd and quizzical at some moments, and quite lovely at others. (The lighting – two bare bulbs and one of those lights with the metallic conical covering, all shining down on her from directly above – did her no flattery: I now understand why stages also provide underlighting, to prevent one’s nose and brows from casting shadows on the rest of one’s face.) I mention that not because I’m a sexist goon but because one thing that made the in-store appearance so enjoyable was her facial expressions and her manner – simultaneously theatrical and off-handedly quirky yet genuine. Hearing her songs with just her voice and piano removed that offputting layer of production – which leaned a bit too heavily on the campy for my tastes – and let her wit, intelligence, and passion come through clearly. McKay’s done some time as a stand-up comic – and some of her little asides between lines, as well as several of those lines themselves, were laugh-out-loud funny. I mean, since it was inevitable that someone someday would rhyme “Hannibal Lecter” with “Phil Spector,” I’m glad it was her.
She’s quite a versatile vocalist as well: she could move from an almost painfully piercing nasality (for effect) to an airy, light quality that suspended notes in the air – they sounded so right it was hard to believe anyone had just sung them. And her “Broadway” voice – with a vibrato that could down bees – was…well, Broadway.
I didn’t go to her actual concert at Turner Hall – but on the basis of this performance, I think at least her live shows are worth my checking them out in the future.
Also: I finally met fellow Milwaukee music-blogger (and former Milk Magazine cohort) Don (from Timedoor), who proved to be a nice fellow. He recognized me – he says because he followed this blog’s link to my Flickr page, but I think he’s secretly a stalker. A blogger-stalker. (Which sounds great out loud. Say it three times in a row, like Zippy the Pinhead.) I’m surprised I hadn’t noticed him before: how many folks can there be in this city with a pegleg and enormous poofy flaming red hair sculpted into a perfect cube, and who favor dressing from head to toe in that same shade of screaming yellowish green they use for firetrucks? Three or four at most, I’d imagine.