I Am Now A Human Eggplant
Last week I could not write anything about Nellie McKay because I HAD NO BRAIN SPACE LEFT! In the interest of A) not giving away too many professional details and B) not whining, I’ll explain in this evasive way: My Right Brain was overworked, and my Left Brain was ignored completely. Add physical exhaustion to the mix and what I had become was a HUMAN EGGPLANT.
And I was bummed. I wanted to wax enthusiastic about Nellie McKay’s new elpee Home Sweet Mobile Home but just could not come up with any gabba gabba, so I begged off. This week however, I did a lot of listening to the new Liz Phair record she’s calling Funstyle, and it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to just jabber on about both albums.
Eleven years later, Nellie McKay demanded that her debut elpee Get Away From Me be released as a double CD even though all 24 tracks could be squeezed into a single disc. Columbia Records said she was nuts, made poor young Nellie pay for the extra packaging out of her own pocket, and eventually showed her the door. Ms. McKay’s debut was strong; the songs were certainly there, she had volumes to say, but Columbia (as is major-label tradition) super-tweaked the production to the point of distraction. I only know this because I heard the complete set of demos before the final official product was released, and the demo tracks were far superior to the bell/whistle/dog/pony buff n’ shine job Columbia’s product development research team gave the official version.
Why does any of this matter? Had Columbia gone with the demos (and not blown pallets of cash in the studio) and gave Ms. Nellie the packaging she wanted, she’d likely still be with the label, and possibly be making them a little money. But yeah, boohoo, poor Columbia.
Now it’s 2010, and after poking around with a few solid self-released elpeez, Nellie McKay has found a home with Verve records, and all seems right with her. Home Sweet Mobile Home offers consistent delights. My personal favorite is “Bodega!” — McKay’s love song to the Mom and Pop corner grocery stores that are so common in New York City. Think of an old Paul Anka number like “Diana” crossed with a small scale production of West Side Story and you’ll get the picture. The chorus catches on like a zombie virus — you hear it once and you just can’t keep it from drooling back out of yer mouth. McKay moves with ease between genres; the Memphis soul of “Coosada Blues,” several light reggae numbers (“Unknown Reggae” and “Caribbean Time”) and an irresistible swinging New Orleans jazz-bash called “Dispossessed” all demonstrate her wide frame of reference.
“Ok,” you say, “Nellie McKay can glide like Zelig through a dozen existing genres, but DOES SHE HAVE HER OWN STYLE?” Sure, sorta. “The Portal” is certainly her song, a lush track where she sings in multi-layered falsetto. It could be the soundtrack to Daybreak by Maxfield Parrish. It’s lovely and bursting with pastel butterflies.
So I’d recommend her new elpee, autographed oven mitts and just about anything else from her. Even if yer a HARD ROCKER, I’d wager she’d melt you down to a puddle by the middle of the album with her effervescence and charm.
Liz Phair on the other hand… what’s going on with Liz Phair?
Hot off some well-received Matador anniversary shows (20 years? I remember when Gerard Cosloy was running Matador out of his fucking apartment, fer chrissakes!!) out flops this thing called Funstyle.
The first track is called “Smoke” — it starts out with a Cascio beat and some jarring high-pitched vocal styling, followed by some character-voiced narration. This isn’t bad. Maybe Liz lives near Canoga Park and felt inspired to get her Frank Zappa freak on. Dunno. The stuff is kinda funny… she complains about having to stand in line at a nightclub cuz the door douche doesn’t recognize her, and so on. It’s alright. It’s unlike anything she’s done before, and sweet Jesus it’s about time.
Then we get to “Bollywood,” and guess what sort of flavor is threaded through that mix? THAT’S RIGHT! The kind of flavor everything was tinged with for about ten minutes when everything was all Slumdog Millionaire a few years ago. More funny narration follows in wacky character voices about empty industry suits, and then LIZ PHAIR RAPS! Y’know, like hip-hop rapping. She’s not bad either. It’s kinda cool, because even though the music sounds like it came off of some Korean beat producing software, it’s (again) unlike anything she’s done before. Still no great tracks, but she scores points for trying some new weird things.
Next, two tracks that resemble Paul Westerberg with all of his teeth pulled out and spread across on a Sponge Bob blanket-covered table at 7 Mile fair. Those are followed by Liz aping Lady Gaga or Beyonce or some other dance music creation. This does not work for her, and then more tracks that sound like they were written by Paul Westerberg when his pen was at its most flaccid, another dance misfire, and… I can’t go on, it’s exhausting.
What Liz Phair needs is a good producer who is also a good songwriter. She’s funny, it’s obvious that she wants to do something different, and she still has talent. But she needs direction. I nominate Beck. And he’s in Silverlake! She could find him easily!
So here’s my advice: Nellie McKay, you’ll just fall in love with her, and that will be that. You won’t be able to help yerself, so don’t even try. Liz Phair, you used to love her, but it ain’t all over now, not just yet, because even though Funstyle is a nervous breakdown of a record, you’ve gotta give Miss-Five-Feet-Two some credit for being audacious. Right?