Double-sided brat

Dropped from a major, Nellie McKay releases her second album on her own record label

Haily Gostas

Columbia Records should have known what they were in for.

When they first signed ivory-tickling chanteuse Nellie McKay back in 2003, she was a bored, precocious Manhattan School of Music dropout and former gay bar stand-up comedian, anxious to cut an album of her delightful, retro-modern pop.

McKay instantly became the label’s resident wildcard with the release of “Get Away From Me.” The debut allowed her to shove to the head of the piano-girl pack previously fronted by softies like Norah Jones and Alicia Keys (even the disc’s title was a snarky pun on Jones’ “Come Away with Me”).

NELLIE McKAY
ALBUM: “Pretty Little Head”
LABEL: Hungry Mouse

The album boasted witty, often scathing lyrics, some politically charged (eulogizing the late senator Paul Wellstone), some utterly absurd (eulogizing her dead kitten). An even bigger surprise was how that phenomenally smooth, Doris Day-esque voice was all at once capable of seductively crooning for her next door neighbor crush and goofily rapping about dethroning the president.

Though the 18-track album could have easily fit on one CD, McKay insisted upon a double-disc release to remind listeners of the feeling of turning over a record. And, one assumes, just to be difficult.

When she attempted to have the same artistic control with her second release, Columbia sought to discipline her by pushing for a slim, 16-track CD instead of her beloved double-disc format. They even sent their version to critics and hardly raised an eyebrow when the album leaked all over the Web. After several of McKay’s public tantrums, Columbia subsequently dropped her and her “Pretty Little Head” in late 2005.

In response, McKay started up her own label, Hungry Mouse and, after nearly a year of smoothing out legalities, finally got the chance to air out her dirty laundry through self-release.

So, is “Pretty Little Head” worth all the fuss? Yes and no. The album itself is lovely – a far more cemented and confident effort, less about seeking points for edginess and more about preserving the old-school sounds McKay has always held dearly.

Setting aside most of the kitsch that made “Get Away from Me” more silly than serious, “Pretty Little Head” finds McKay indulging in coy lounge swing, jazz-tinged torch songs and big Broadway numbers. Whether slinking through classic sultry ballads like “Long and Lazy River,” baring her claws on the minute-long charmer “Pounce” or skewering romance with Cyndi Lauper on their duet “Beecharmer,” McKay proves she has plenty of attitude and versatility to spare.

While “Pretty Little Head” is hardly a sophomore slump, McKay’s smart music may not be widely appealing or accessible enough to command attention away from her disastrous label affairs. Public stir can only help an album so much before it hinders it.

Still, McKay has never been one to roll over and play label lapdog. “Pretty Little Head’s” theatrics make it deliciously unclear whether she sees herself as a genuine martyr bucking the Big Bad Music Executives, or just a cheeky girl who loves to toy with her listeners as much as the industry.