God Bless the Child

Cabaret wunderkind waves jock-hipster kryptonite at all of NPR's left-leaning quirksters

Todd Graff's charming boutique film Camp celebrates high school misfits whose means of musical rebellion isn't indie or emo or undie. Kids excluded from hip teen iconoclasm—too smart for Staind and too ill-shod for Saves the Day. They're kids who adopt an adult gay male aesthetic—who use show tunes as jock-hipster kryptonite. But while Camp cheers its troupe of outcasts, it also laments the way the world-weariness they've copped prevents them from dealing openly with day-to-day adolescent bullshit.

At 19, cabaret wunderkind Nellie McKay hates conformity and hypocrisy at least as much as Linkin Park do. Most of the songs on her debut extol being different. And she is different, even somewhat touched, really. Between a wardrobe that interprets '30s glamour as '80s office wear and a repertoire that flips from ethereal vocalese to ersatz Latin ragtime, from baroque swoon to ferocious Eminem approximations, Nellie McKay is certainly not about being hip. A compatriot of East Village quirk merchants like the Trachtenburg Family and Regina Spektor, she was raised in bohemian Harlem by her mother, an actress who palled around with Abbie Hoffman. She lived in Olympia and the Poconos before returning to NYC, where she abandoned music school for gigs at Fez. Sony sent her to record Get Away From Me with Geoff Emerick in hopes of minting a new darling for the NPR set.

Most interviews mention McKay's fame-lust. You get the feeling that if you stood in her way she might boil your bunny before you could say "to-mah-to." And at a recent Housing Works bookstore benefit, this one-girl charm offensive beguiled her target audience with a sidelong smile and middle- brow patter, looking radiantly kooky in black tights, middle-management pumps, and a red brocade waistcoat with a fur collar—which, after a prompt by her mom, she assured us wasn't real.

McKay's stylistically restless. "David" 's spunky variety-show verse, clucking on about clicking off Mr. Bush before slipping into a beerhall croon, leads directly to "Manhattan Avenue," a smoldering collage where our siren recalls her own mugging at age 10, marveling that "a mugger and a child should share the same paradise." Just when you think it's all jazz throwbacks, "Sari" raps over piano rollick, as McKay matter-of-factly elides rapid-fire chatter ("I'm sorry for the mess/The stupid way I dress") with Sondheim-ish recitative. Who knew? What's more, she's got flow. And elevates teenage vitriol to cataclysm as relentlessly as Pink or Sum 41. Onstage, her sturm und drang at times recalls Tori Amos adding her own fragrance to Teen Spirit.

But there's a nagging sense that Get Away From Me isn't for Camp kids as much as for their parents—people trying to raise offspring who are fearless and literate. For left-leaners, McKay is a golden child. And she knows it. Sure, some Deanie babies felt pain over the death of Paul Wellstone and are mad that males have "started every war." But too often McKay seems stuck in the zeitgeist of a 50-year-old—no references to "downloading" or "Britney" or The Bachelor, but rather to "yuppies," the "Oxygen network," and "David Hasselhoff." When she drubs her boyfriend in "It's a Pose" for his tiresome talk of "Peter Lorre/then a story 'bout AC/DC," you wanna find her a date who isn't Nick Hornby. But maybe these laugh lines'll grub grins from the same download-averse dudes who moved so many units for Norah Jones.

Like Randy Newman, McKay's not afraid to assume the personae of society's reprehensibles: society ladies who take their coffee black, then notice, "Hey look, we're bombing Iraq!"; a vixen who admonishes a lover to "salute the flag or I'll call you a fag." But unlike Newman or Stephin Merritt, her characterizations are short on nuance and empathy, and her literate wit isn't (yet?) sharp enough to mask her self-congratulation. A sympathetic portrayal of a grief-stricken cat owner in the daffy, theme-songish "Ding Dong" contrasts with deep condescension leveled at the protagonist of "I Wanna Get Married," who muses, "I need to cook meals/I wanna pack cute little lunches for my Brady Bunches/And read Danielle Steele." [laugh at woman here]

But "Married" 's got some devastating images too, some killer melodic resolves, and transporting vocal brio. And though laden with hoke, McKay's love song to her double, "Clonie," carries a whiff of McGarrigle whimsy. "Waiter," an ethereal Nordic disco-pop anomaly, swirls into harpy heaven and then dissolves into a wistful-robot turnaround on "nothin' could be finer than to be in Carolina." She's refreshingly weird, all right. And you get the feeling that—if her narcissism doesn't eat her lyricism—one day she may spring out of her sanctioned teacup, exploding like a supernova Alanis in a jagged little wig-out. And then, come away with her we shall.

 
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