Music Hall of Williamsburg
“All right! Here’s the part of the set where you get to sing along in Mandarin!” We are hesitant about this, but Nellie McKay is insistent. And suddenly the Music Hall of Williamsburg (have you been to this place? Is it not a disturbingly exact replica of the Bowery Ballroom, with the downstairs bar and everything? Must even our new music venues now look exactly alike?) explodes into three-part Mandarin harmony. Nellie gives us further instructions: “Stomp your feet!” [We stomp our feet.] “Clap your hands!” [We clap our hands.] “Think depressing thoughts!” [We think about that abysmal new Jay-Z song.]
As we were sitting around for a slightly noticeably long time waiting for Nellie to take the stage, a booming, impatient voice behind me declared, “If this were the theater, they’d be killing people!” I turn around and realize I recognize this guy. Can’t place him. Spend several minutes ruminating. Finally, the dude next to me sets me straight: Wallace Shawn. Y’know! My Dinner With Andre? Clueless? Several Woody Allen films? The Princess Bride I’m with this guy! As you wish! He’s got a valid point, but Vizzini’s got no complaints when Nellie finally surfaces, a massive stack of songbooks and sheet music in her arms, parks herself in front of the piano, and starts us off with an a capella “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” in her lovely, rapturous voice, a classic jazz-siren coo for a bewildering artist born decades too late who remains ahead of her time. She forgets some lyrics near the end, and someone in the front row cheerfully cues her, establishing the dependably wacky Nellie–audience rapport that will eventually lead to our Mandarin adventure.
Her new record is called Obligatory Villagers. It’s weird. Prog-cabaret, almost, with a Fiery Furnaces genre-hopping randomness, a showy schizophrenia she doesn’t need. Nellie’s truly outstanding at her simplest, as on viciously witty opener “Mother of Pearl,” a bouncy, brush-drummed ditty about humorless feminists:
Child molestation isn’t funny
Rape and degradation’s just a crime
Rampant prostitution, sex for money
Can’t these chicks do anything but whine?
This knocks ’em dead here at the fake Bowery Ballroom. Time for a live album/DVD, Nellie: She’s mesmerizing, hilarious, dazzlingly dexterous. She rhymes pneumonia with bologna, Attila the Hun with cinnamon bun. She requests a ukulele, and upon delivery, announces, “This is a song about illegal immigration” and launches into “Don’t Fence Me In.” She slaps at pages of sheet music that don’t turn properly. She banters bizarrely (“There’s something about wealthy socialites—I identify with them”). She sings the chipper, murderous “Won’t U Please B Nice” (A personal favorite). She does a version of “Hound Dog” with lots of theatrical mumbling and updated lyrics about Ann Coulter and tofu dogs and the Jena 6 tree. She ignores requests for “Clonie.” She does a freestyle-rap version of the not-too-great Obligatory track “Zombie,” featuring opening act Timothy Dark, who does a passable Marvin the Martian impression. She does her own Bob Dylan impression, which is infinitely better. She adds an encore lecture to her relentless campaign against Columbia. (Which has nothing to do with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.) She confuses and charms us completely. Wallace Shawn looks impressed. And dammit, that’s good enough for me.