On the heels of her atmospheric 2018 standards album Sister Orchid, singer/pianist Nellie McKay offers an equally lowkey and misty follow-up EP with 2019's Bagatelles. As with Sister Orchid, here McKay performs a handful of beloved classic songs in a distinctly spare style. Along with singing, she also plays all the instruments here, accompanying herself at various times on piano, ukulele, bass, Fender Rhodes, and even Theremin. There's a laid-back, bedroom cabaret quality to these performances, as if McKay is flipping through one of her favorite song books and giving off-the-cuff takes on songs that catch her fancy. In particular, her swaying take on "Up a Lazy River" evokes the feel of relaxed summer's day as she sings while strumming a ukulele. Even when she goes for a more robust arrangement, playing bass and ukulele on "Accentuate the Positive," the result sounds pleasingly spontaneous. That said, the minimalist vibe belies McKay's knack for conceptual, almost cinematic presentation. One could almost take her whistling intro "How About You" for granted until she brings it back, whistling along with her vocals at the end. She takes this deft conceptualism even further on Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You," framing her delicate a cappella vocals with nature sounds, including a seagull's call and waves softly hitting a beach. Perhaps most affecting, McKay juxtaposes her arty conceits with her sweetly earnest delivery, a choice that helps make the album both intriguing and surprisingly moving.
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar