Nellie McKay

Pretty Little Head

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AllMusic Review by

Pretty Little Head, the Nellie McKay record that Columbia refused to release in early 2006, is remarkably similar to Get Away from Me, the record it released to wide acclaim in 2003. Like McKay's debut, it's a two-disc album packed with brash wordplay, passionate causes, and a diverting variety of New York music locales, from the Brill Building to Cafe Carlyle to the South Bronx. If it sacrifices some of the humor and precocious flair of her debut in favor of more social criticism, it's still a very entertaining and occasionally beautiful album that allows space for McKay's continuum of emotions, from gleeful to melancholy to furious. Beginning with a cheerleading tribute to gay marriage ("Cupcake"), she deftly interposes songs on activism, romance, and fun -- not all of which are identifiable at first blush. A key part of her charm is that few of her activist songs are dour or academic (although a song about food, and titled "Food," is the most delightful song on the record). McKay, who sits in the production chair, sounds as musically astute as her predecessor Geoff Emerick (a large feat), and her band, resourceful and economical, again functions as an excellent vehicle for her eccentric songwriting. As on her debut, no songs are obvious highlights, although they're all good or great. In the bitter relationship song "There You Are in Me," McKay prefaces the title with "Everyone you meet secures a wretched seat within your memory/Wipe their filthy feet upon the yearning of your soul," but sings it with such energy and insistency that it doesn't sound maudlin or depressing. "The Big One" may make commercialism sound as terrifying as apocalypse, but "Columbia Is Bleeding" (about allegations of animal cruelty at Columbia University) is a quietly bewitching song quite apart from its subject matter. Although she may not strain for the humor of her first album, she summons a quiet beauty that's new for the elegy "Gladd" (which honors peace activist Gladd Patterson). Pretty Little Head sounds like a record from a woman coming out of girlhood -- more confident, more wise about love, and more focused about her concerns, if no less passionate.

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