Blond Ambition 

Teen queen Nellie McKay is the girl with the most cake.

On the cover of her debut album, 19-year-old Harlemite Nellie McKay (that's McKay with a long "I" sound, "just like the guy from Fugazi," McKay has helpfully pointed out) is a grinning blond beauty with her arms triumphantly outstretched and wearing a Little Red Riding Hood cloak. It's a cheerful image, like something from the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But then you notice the grafitti-pocked concrete behind her and the PARENTAL ADVISORY EXPLICIT LYRICS sticker down in the bottom left corner.

This confrontational disconnect is mirrored in the album's title. McKay, a strong-voiced, mature-beyond-her-years young thing who generally favors piano ballads and jazz over more modern sounds, seems, on the surface, to be capitalizing on the phenomenal success of Norah Jones. Jones, you'll remember, romanced an older audience with a debut album called Come Away With Me. Say it in an understated, breathy voice: Come Away With Me. McKay's title: Get Away From Me.

McKay is the latest in a fabulous line of tricky, cerebral, comic songwriters whom you can trace through obvious comparison Stephin Merrit (Magnetic Fields) back through Randy Newman and Leiber and Stoller to Chuck Berry and Louis Jordan. The deliberate untrustworthiness of her songwriting protagonists (many of whom may not be McKay herself) evokes Newman, and, like Newman, she baits a respectable, NPR-ish audience, courting them with her classy surface and then turning on them by embracing rap, unleashing her potty mouth, and contemplating suicide by gin and beer.

Nothing lashes out at this audience quite like the scathing "It's a Pose," where McKay hits all the sensitive guys who bought her CD below the belt, locating the inner creep or blowhard beneath the nice-guy facade. "God, you went to Oxford/Head still in your boxers," she sighs with exasperation. "Go on pontificatin' like I care/Peter Lorre then a story 'bout AC-DC," she tells them (um, us).

But McKay also courts this audience in ways that may suggest limitations in an artist whose surface seems limitless: She's 19 going on 40 not because of her anachronistic taste for cocktail jazz and cabaret and show tunes but because she cries for Senator Wellstone and dates Oxford grads and pines for her older neighbor and knows the upper-class, middle-aged, coffee-shop culture all too well. I mean, doesn't she know any guys her own age?

The one real connection to her own generation is McKay's interest in rap. Her awkward, nerdy flow is either a turnoff or endearing, depending on your perspective (as a generalist who's been a hip-hop fan for more than 20 years now, it works for me). The hip-hop connection comes through most strongly on the epic non-apology "Sari" and the predictable but still sharp "Work Song": "I don't know, son/Was there something I missed?/I don't think Fritz Lang was a fantasist/Metropolis exists."

The hip-hop influences generally encourage the trapdoor distance McKay brings to much of her material: The acid "I Wanna Get Married" is a seductive piano ballad that picks apart the Leave It to Beaver stereotype: "I wanna pack cute little lunches/For my Brady bunches/Then read Danielle Steele." And "Won't U Please B Nice" -- a light, jaunty crooner song for which McKay reportedly received an "F" from the Manhattan School of Music -- has its protagonist pleading for oral sex and threatening to slit the throat of an uncooperative object of affection.

But not everything is a put-on: She makes the lines "Just pour me a drink/Right out of the can/I don't want to think/I just want my man" a bit of boozy romanticism you can believe in. The sexy crooner "Manhattan Avenue" seems like a joke on the surface, with the soft, supper-club jazz obscuring lyrics about a pretty rough place ("Kittens are meowling/Junkies are prowling") but there seems to be an honest nostalgia at the core when McKay sings, "How wild it is/How strange a vice/That a mugger and a child should share the same paradise."

McKay has all the ambition of the proverbial showbiz kid --she wants it all and seems pretty convinced that her talent can get it, and she's probably right.

Just when you think there's nothing new out there, the first quarter of the year delivers things you never imagined you'd hear: a teen rapper (Dizzee Rascal) who captures the excitement and despair of underclass London over homemade beats, a mainstream rapper (Kanye West) who unites the Benz and the backpack, and a mischievous throwback (McKay) intent on pulling the rug out from under the Norah Jones coronation. The biz may be in trouble, but in terms of art and culture, 2004 is off to a fabulous start.


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