Album/Concert Review: Nellie McKay / Home Sweet Mobile Home

I’ve always thought Nellie McKay was fantastic, and not just because she posed for my Photo of the Day site (I got a rare non-smiling photo!).

I got Nellie McKay’s latest album on release day. I actually pre-ordered it. I don’t think I’ve ever pre-ordered a CD before.

This album couldn’t be more different than her previous album, but that’s hardly surprising as it was a Doris Day tribute, which would pretty much enforce a certain style. So I’ll ignore that album for now that her previous album is 2007’s Obligatory Villagers.

This album couldn’t be more different than her previous album.

Alright, that might not be completely true. The album definitely has a very Nellie McKay feel to it, but it’s… almost gratifying to see that she continues to grow musically. I don’t think any of the tracks on this album would fit in on any of her previous albums, but it might not be very surprising to find them there – they’d just seem different.

Nellie is definitely exploring some new sounds on this album. From the caribbean almost-reggae Caribbean Time (not to mention Unknown Regge), to the New Orleans sounding Dispossessed and the more mellow , to the South American-ish ¬°Bodega!. It also includes songs like Please and The Portal, which sounds to me like modern day incarnation of a Doris Day kind of song. There are also songs like Bruise on the Sky, which is straight-up current, but somehow without most current music’s inherent horribleness.

It was sheer luck that Nellie was playing a local venue this close to the album’s release. She played here not too long ago (right at the beginning of the year) so I didn’t expect to see her again for a while. We actually had tickets to see Richie Havens that night, but he had to cancel and Nellie came in on very short notice.

Now I have to mention that I really have no idea what her concerts elsewhere are like. I gather that the venue is probably similar (smallish jazz club), but she plays with an extremely local band. And I mean extremely local – they’re usually the house-bad for A Prairie Home Companion, which is an olde-timey-radio-variety-show and could not be more Minnesotan. I’d love to see her play somewhere else, just for curiosity’s sake, but my review is based on the local shows.

This was the third time we’ve seen Nellie play at The Dakota, which is pretty much the only place I really get to see live music at since they’re not insane volume. We had the worst seats we’ve ever had there, which meant we were three tables from the stage. We were kind of behind most the musicians, but the nice thing about that is you can follow along on the sheet music. Anyway.

Some of the songs from the new album (notably the aforementioned Bruise on the Sky) have reached a level of complexity that makes them suffer slightly when played live. This is a stark contrast to many of the songs from her earlier albums, like Sari off 2004’s Get Away From Me which sounds phenomenally better live, with just Nellie and a piano, than the overly-complex rap/slam style on the album.

Those are the only things I can think of that are even remotely close to negative, though.

(Although I can think of something funny – the second keyboard player had an electric piano set to vibraphone for much of the concert… but the opening act had an actual vibraphone player, and he was fantastic, bow-tie and all.)

One thing that alway surprises me when I hear Nellie McKay live is how amazing her voice is. This surprises me because it’s better than on her albums. She has a range that she just doesn’t use in recordings. I have no idea why. She can blast out volumes that shouldn’t be able to physically come out of someone as tiny as her, and she can turn her voice into a tiny silken thread that just wafts lightly through the room, but you know silk is actually super-strong so it kinda grabs you and I think I’ve beaten this analogy to death so I’ll stop now. It’s worth seeing her live just for that, though – you’re definitely going to hear some things you don’t get in her albums.

Another thing you’ll get that’s not on the albums is the chatter. Nellie is very chatty, and she’s a lot of fun. She talks about the songs, and just about what she’s been doing in general. During our show, she showed us a pair of shoes she got at Target earlier, and how well they go with what some people have dubbed her birth-control coat.

It was also an incredibly long concert, and there seemed to be a fair amount of improvisation. I’m not sure how much of it was planned, but given that this was, as I said, a very local band, they couldn’t have possibly had that much time to rehearse (then again, one thing about being a house-band for a weekly radio variety show is that you have to be pretty good at playing many different styles with not a heck of a lot of practice).

She also made fun of Sarah Palin, which is always a bonus.

And she stayed around after the show to sign autographs, chat with people and pose for incredibly silly art projects.

If Nellie McKay is playing anywhere near where you happen to be, go see her. Especially when she’s still playing small venues. I’d like to think there is a group of people who call themselves Nell Heads who live in a bus and follow her around. She definitely deserves it.

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