The irony inherent in Obligatory Villagers, the shortest of Nellie McKay's first three albums, is that it's her most difficult to understand, comprehend, or even take in. This despite the fact that, unlike her first two albums, these nine songs don't sprawl stylistically. Except for a light pop opener -- granted, that opener is a mocking satire of conservatives called "Mother of Pearl" with an opening line ("Feminists don't have a sense of humor") that deftly counterbalances McKay's later call for a dance break -- the album is Broadway all the way. With McKay's voice and piano, plus heavyweight help from jazz horns including David Liebman, Phil Woods, and Bob Dorough (the latter a singing horn), the album charges by with lightning speed. Her nimble Broadway orchestrations step and kick so quickly that it's nearly impossible to decode McKay's lyrics until after several listens -- even keeping up with the lyric book is difficult. (On his features, Dorough plays it up perfectly, a bemused and befuddled onlooker to the madness.) The fact that Obligatory Villagers does eventually coalesce into a unified and pleasurable listening experience is primarily a testament to Nellie McKay's sizable skills in arrangement and orchestration; writing original charts to provide the meat, then quoting from show tune tradition where she needs to lighten the mood, she makes the entire album a treat, an entertaining experience that listeners will want to sit through over and over until they figure out all of the points -- large and small -- she's making in these songs. If only there were a Broadway musical companion for Obligatory Villagers that listeners could actually sit through, either to visually unite the songs or merely to watch while they listened, Obligatory Villagers would be an amazing soundtrack.
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AllMusic Review by John Bush