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Jazz - Released May 18, 2018 | Palmetto+

Given her jazz-influenced sound and knack for thoughtfully chosen cover songs, it's surprising that Nellie McKay had never released a complete jazz standards album until 2018's smoky, intimately rendered Sister Orchid. The closest the idiosyncratic singer/songwriter had gotten previously was her brightly attenuated 2009 Doris Day tribute, Normal as Blueberry Pie, which found her investigating songs heavily associated with the iconic actress and singer. Similarly, on 2015's My Weekly Reader, McKay took on some of her favorite '60s pop tunes by bands like the Kinks, Herman's Hermits, Moby Grape, and others. Here, McKay takes a deftly straightforward approach, performing a set of well-chosen standards that wouldn't be out of place on an album by Blossom Dearie (another McKay touchstone) from the 1950s. McKay, who arranged and played all of the songs on Sister Orchid, recorded the album in New York with engineer Chris Allen. Allen has worked with a bevy of jazz, folk, and pop artists including Kurt Elling, José James, Ingrid Michaelson, Andrew Bird, and others, and brings a soft, natural warmth that never interferes with McKay's performance. Primarily, these are spare arrangements, often just McKay accompanying herself on piano, as on the haunting "Angel Eyes." Elsewhere, as on her dusky reading of "Where or When," she weaves in a mournful cello. There are also jaunty bits of ukulele, as on "Lazybones," which also features her overdubbed backing vocals. The Broadway-tested McKay also displays her love of cabaret as she intersperses crowd chatter and clinking glasses to theatrical effect on "Everything Happens to Me." Despite her penchant for artifice, McKay reveals her strong musical chops on Sister Orchid, launching into a mad-eyed boogie-woogie section on "Where or When" and delivering a spine-tingling, synth-accented take on "In a Sentimental Mood" that conjures the neon-soaked atmosphere of David Lynch's Twin Peaks. ~ Matt Collar
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Jazz - Released October 25, 2019 | Palmetto+

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. ~ Matt Collar
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Pop - Released January 1, 2015 | 429 Records

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Pop - Released January 1, 2009 | Verve

If vocal fans were forced to predict the honoree for a Nellie McKay tribute album, most would have gone far down the list before eventually happening upon the winner, Doris Day. (Granted, McKay had penned her praise of Day two years earlier in an article for the New York Times Review of Books.) But even though her lyrics and attitude are another story (or another era), McKay has a pure but nuanced voice that was always a good match for Day's, and her concern for animal rights is even closer (just check the liner notes for evidence). It's clear to see also that she truly honors her subject; she arranged and selected nearly all of the songs on the album, and even plays all the instruments on the opener, "The Very Thought of You" (that would be vocals, piano, organ, and bells). The selection choices shy away from Day's hits; only "Sentimental Journey" appears from a list of Doris Day's biggest, while "Secret Love," "Day by Day," "Come to Baby, Do," and "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" are left behind. Many of the songs play up Doris Day the coquette, with "Do Do Do" and "Mean to Me" coming across just as sweet as the originals (actually, sweeter). The arrangements are strictly small-group, which is slightly surprising granted that the originals were either big-band swingers or highly orchestrated pop, but McKay shines here too, posing most of the charts halfway between cabaret and Broadway. Actually, when the professionals Bob Holderbaum and Bob Dorough reveal their orchestrations, the charts are a little too Broadway, a little too bland compared to McKay's -- although "Wonderful Guy" is rescued by the most subtle vocal of McKay's career and wonderful accompaniment from Charles Pillow (channeling John Coltrane) on tenor sax. Fans of her subject may doubt her sincerity when, on "Crazy Rhythm," she revels in a series of corny asides -- "Absolutely pip!" and "That's jazz!" -- while Cenovia Cummins takes a hot violin solo. So, the question becomes: Does she revere all the lyrics she sings, as must any artist born past 1950? Of course not, but neither did Day herself. The long tradition of stagecraft (as well as songcraft) honors the fact that a performer can inhabit any character she wishes. The success of the project obviously hinges on McKay herself, and she brings it off thanks to one of the most affecting voices in modern music, a bewitching way of humanizing her songs, and her ability to echo Day's sincerity and joi de vivre (even if it is a performance). ~ John Bush
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Pop/Rock - Released February 10, 2004 | Columbia

A striking mix of radical and traditional, raw emotion and literate expression, hip-hop and vocal pop, Nellie McKay's Get Away from Me is the kind of feverishly inventive, sprawling album that only comes from young artists. Though it could've easily fit onto a single CD, it's a double-disc set designed to reclaim the feeling of flipping over a record; the back cover proclaims that McKay "is a proud member of PETA." While McKay's age (21 at the time of the album's release) and sound make comparisons to Fiona Apple, Nelly Furtado, and Norah Jones easy -- she even named her album Get Away from Me as a preemptive strike against it being lumped in with Jones' Come Away with Me -- McKay is a more esoteric and hyperactively creative artist. She seems determined to prove how smart and wide-ranging she is on the album, and for the most part, she carries it off. Juxtaposing songs like the swoony torch song to New York, "Manhattan Avenue," and "Sari," a rap song about everything that gets on McKay's nerves (including McKay herself), certainly demonstrates the extremes of her music. However, these rapid-fire stylistic shifts and the sheer amount of information that McKay puts in her songs sometimes makes the album more dizzying than dazzling. But Get Away from Me succeeds, sometimes in spite of itself, as a musical document of all of the contradictions of a 19-year-old young woman with more than half a brain in her head. Some of McKay's songs deal with fairly typical themes like coming to terms with womanhood, sexuality, and relationships, but McKay attempts to cover as much lyrical ground as she does musical territory, with mixed results. On "Work Song," it sounds like McKay has heard how soul-sucking a nine-to-five can be, but it doesn't have the ring of truth that some of her other songs do. "Ding Dong," on the other hand, deals with depression in a surprisingly sprightly way, and the similarly witty "Clonie" turns human cloning into a story about self-obsession. The traditional feel of McKay's songwriting style and voice and her subversive lyrics often give Get Away from Me the feel of being the soundtrack to some long-lost feminist musical. "It's a Pose" and "Won't U Please B Nice" (sample lyric: "If we part I'll eat your heart") apply McKay's sharp wit to men and love; "I Wanna Get Married" casts a languidly scornful eye on traditional notions of marriage. These songs, along with the equally charming album opener, "David," and closer, "Really," have a lighter touch that avoids the clever-cleverness that drags down some of McKay's work, but is still miles away from the mild-mannered coffee-table jazz she loathes. Get Away from Me is an exciting debut that could become a cult favorite among pissed-off girl-women of McKay's age; if she can focus her creative energy without sacrificing any of the bite of her debut, she'll become an even more impressive talent. ~ Heather Phares
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Pop - Released October 18, 2005 | Columbia

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Jazz - Released March 23, 2015 | Savoy

Last time Nellie McKay took a stroll through the past, she doffed her hat at Doris Day, an obvious tribute for a singer as besotted with the stage as Ms. McKay. My Weekly Reader, the album that functions as the sequel to 2010's all-original Home Sweet Mobile Home, is a surprise as it shines a spotlight directly on some of the shadowy corners of the '60s. Despite opening with a cover of the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon" and a leisurely reading of the Beatles' "If I Fell," McKay doesn't spend much time with the familiar. She gravitates toward folky introspection and songs that allow her to strut, two kinds of vintage styles that suit her well, but My Weekly Reader also shows her fondness for weirdo social satire, a quirk that at first glance seem like an odd fit for the singer. Upon second glance, Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention's "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" and Moby Grape's "Murder in My Heart for the Judge" seem odd: they're stage-bound theatrical productions fueled by cutesy curtseys, an attitude that unravels during the latter as McKay threads in protest lines from 2014, ending with a whispered "I can't breathe." Nevertheless, that ambition is admirable and its very presence is appreciated, particularly compared to the lighter pop tunes of Small Faces' "Itchycoo Park" and Herman's Hermits' "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter," tunes that allow McKay to mince about more than necessary. Where My Weekly Reader shines is on the quieter moments, which range from the loveliness of Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Wooden Ships," the nostalgic gleam of Gerry & the Pacemakers' "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying," and the spookiness of Richard & Mimi Fariña's "Bold Marauder." Here, McKay achieves a delicate balance between '60s reverence and a sly modern wink, a blurring of eras that plays to her strengths. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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Pop - Released January 1, 2010 | Verve

Nellie McKay's first album of new material in three years returns her to the stylistically scattershot, lyrically ingenious nature of Obligatory Villagers. As she admits herself ("I have no idea how this album happened"), McKay is working on instinct, which helps preserve not only her many idiosyncrasies but also the charming and witty nature of her songwriting. She did gain guidance from two elder sources, one being her mother Robin Pappas (a co-producer) and the other David Byrne, who recruited McKay to appear on his Imelda Marcos concept album Here Lies Love and then returned the favor by making compilations and recommending people for Home Sweet Mobile Home. Byrne's help is intriguing, since the album has all the sounds of the post-millennial global village: reggae rhythms and vocal inflections for several tracks (including "Caribbean Time"), a New Yorker's version of Latin-ized tradition for "¡Bodega!," and, as before, plenty of the good-time, slightly New Orleans-influenced jazz she's floated in the past. The album also has slightly more guitar than any since her debut. Guitars were expected on her first record, since it was produced by Geoff Emerick, but here McKay and her group appear to be attempting an adult-alternative pop crossover of some type. Lyrically, she continues the incisive satire and parody heard on her earlier material. (The first line on Obligatory Villagers was "Feminists don't have a sense of humor," while Home Sweet Mobile Home begins with "The New York Times invents the news.") While her mood inevitably varies from track to track, McKay, more often than before, sounds as though circa-2000s malaise has infected her songwriting; the opener, "Bruise on the Sky," is especially dark (its chorus ends "What I hoped would be my rainbow, was just a bruise on the sky"). "Beneath the Underdog" and "No Equality" are equally dispirited, nearly fatalistic, despite the latter's airing as an organ-led soul jam. ~ John Bush
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Pop/Rock - Released February 10, 2004 | Columbia

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Jazz - Released September 27, 2019 | Palmetto+

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Film Soundtracks - Released January 3, 2006 | Columbia

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Jazz - Released February 21, 2018 | Palmetto+

Pop - Released January 1, 2015 | 429 Records

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