Remembering Nellie McKay's stellar "Get Away From Me"

20 years ago Nellie McKay produced fantastic music.
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It was twenty years ago today...that the world first heard of Nellie McKay…

The gradual disappearance of Nellie McKay from the world of popular music over the past twenty years is a cultural tragedy. She’s still around, playing to a small strata of loyal fans… playing a lot of covers of classic jazz and torch songs. She doesn’t write so much anymore… hasn’t for years. But there was a time… there was a time when Nellie McKay was the most audacious, most precocious, most innovative singer/songwriter in the country. It was twenty years ago today.

If you have never heard McKay’s debut album, Get Away From Me, stop reading and listen to it now. I can wait. It appeared in a period in which female musical artists were claiming their birthright. Madonna and Joan Jett had been around for twenty-plus years, proving that female singers could equal and surpass their male counterparts in the world of pop and punk. More importantly, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill had come out five years earlier and hip-hop was also fair game for female artists. Obviously, enormous barriers remained entrenched, but supreme talent and force of will could overcome all that.

Though they can seem very different, Nellie McKay and Lauryn Hill have a lot in common. Both were precocious girls who were heavily influenced by the proximity to New York in the 1980s/’90s. Both were supremely gifted. But unlike Madonna and Jett, neither ever seemed comfortable in the trench warfare of popular music. Both went through self-imposed exile from the music business.

You can read up on McKay’s bitter fight with Columbia Records over control of her second album, Pretty Little Head. It’s a sad, instructive story of a glorious and flawed album. But I don’t want to go into the ugliness that led McKay to eventually turn her back on putting out original work. Today, I just want to celebrate one of the greatest American albums of the 21st century, released on February 10, 2004.

It was twenty years ago today for Nellie McKay...

If the immediate antecedent of Get Away From Me was Norah Jones’ 2002 debut Come Away With Me, there was a lot of related zeitgeist in the air. The boys had been working on a type of musical revival for more than a decade. It was classified as swing revival and the likes of Brian Setzer, Jimbo Mathus, and Steve Perry pumped it out to younger listeners. It wasn’t long before the women caught up. Over in the UK, a teenage Joss Stone was debuting her unique take on jazz vocal interpretations. In the States, Madeleine Peyroux and the Ditty Bops were also finding modern ways of recording old-school music.

What sets McKay apart from all the other throwback innovators is that she didn’t confine herself to jazz. She didn’t confine herself to anything.

McKay recorded Get Away From Me in New York when she was 21 years old. There were eighteen tracks on the album – over an hour’s worth of music –and she wrote every one of them. No co-writers. No covers. The venerable Geoff Emerick, who engineered the Beatles’ Revolver when he was 20 years old, served as producer. McKay’s songs run the gamut from lovely piano ballads to vitriolic hip-hop. There’s cute music and hard music, and plenty of stuff that just can’t be categorized. There’s even one outright dud. (more on that in a minute.)

Lyrically, there were love songs and hate songs, and plenty of political songs. Virtually every contemporary review I remember referred to McKay as a “brat,” which seemed to be a pejoratively friendly way of labeling any precocious young woman unafraid to speak her mind. McKay may well have been a brat – she certainly plays one in some of her songs. But if older reviewers – mostly men – scoffed at her juvenile assessment of George Bush and world politics, with twenty years of hindsight, we can now say that she was a lot more astute about what was going on in the world than many of the scholars writing at the time.

Get Away From Me is roughly divided equally between three types of songs. There are the jazzy piano ballads. There are also spiritual cousins of those jazz numbers – what you might think of as throwback-tinged pop. And there is hip hop. On the first set of songs, McKay mostly accompanies herself on piano. She uses a few other instruments on the pop numbers. And she and Emerick pull out all the stops on the hip hop.

Those jazz numbers, which the intervening years have revealed to be McKay’s musical home base, range from sweet to sad. There’s the catchy earworm melody of “The Dog Song,” which became one of her more recognizable numbers. There’s the snarky sarcasm of “I Wanna Get Married” and “Won’t U Please B Nice.”

The first of those tracks, the smokey brooding marriage wish, begins “I wanna get married – Yes, I need a spouse – I want a nice Leave it to Beaverish – Gold retriever and a little white house” and concludes “I will never tarry – I’m not even torn – I wanna get married – That’s why I was born.” If you don’t like that brand of submissive sarcasm, check out “Won’t U Please B Nice,” whose bouncy piano underpins the opening verse “If you would sit – Oh so close to me – That would be nice – Like it’s supposed to be – If you don’t, I’ll slit your throat – so won’t you please be nice.” It gets more insistent and more violent from there.

The pop numbers also run the lyrical gamut, from the silly ode to self-love in a technological age, “Clonie,” to the bitter analysis of male mock-sensitivity, “It’s a Pose.” Tossed somewhere in the middle is a spectacular evolution of Shel Silverstein’s “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” McKay’s version – “Ding Dong” is a deceptively bouncy tune that barely masks the terror of female impotence.

Then there are the five hip-hop numbers. Every one is a gem, both musically and lyrically. “Change the World” begins with a martial drum beat before delving into the pressures placed on young women to live up to the command of the title. “Toto Dies” refers to “The Wizard of Oz,” exploring how pop culture becomes a panacea in the face of insurmountable world problems. Musically, it serves as a warm-up to her greatest song from her subsequent albums – “Columbia is Bleeding,” from Pretty Little Head. There is “Inner Peace,” which must have served as a model for Olivia Rodrigo’s “ballad of a homeschooled girl.” And “Work Song,” which predicts the entire gig-work economy.

Those songs, along with several that I don’t have room to mention, would constitute a phenomenal album by themselves. But her single greatest songwriting achievement, “Sari,” beats them all. “Sari” is about the expectations placed on young women. In its three-and-a-half minutes, it covers an extraordinary breadth of experience. That’s partly because McKay raps so fast. It allows her to cover serious territory. But it’s mainly because of the incisiveness of the lyrics.

“When you’re in Snowshoe PA – Doing some play from backstage – That deals with AIDS and race and gays and relationships and ballet – And then you’re like ‘hey hey, what’d you say? – I can just sing my troubles away?’ – But then you’re f****d – Cause you gotta make a buck – And the whole sucks – and you’re like a lame duck…”

It goes on –  referencing Monty Python and Paul Wellstone, fen-phen, and Faust. It builds to one of the angriest diatribes modern feminism has to offer. The title is “Sari.” The message is “Sorry – not sorry.” I don’t why she changed the title word. I don’t really care. It’s the best song of 2004. I can see why those who are opposed to feminism would take offense. But, please, do not call the songwriter a brat.

I mentioned that there is a dud on the album. Two tracks after “Sari,” McKay does a sorta-kinda dance number called “Baby Watch Your Back.” It’s not the worst song ever, but in the middle of such a stunning collection of tunes, it doesn’t work. In the years since Get Away From Me appeared, I have come to rationalize it this way, even though I am fairly certain McKay did not intend this. “Baby Watch Your Back” says to the listener “I may be precocious. I may be brilliant or bratty. But I am not perfect. I have flaws.” Twenty years later, that same message took the world by storm in the movie Barbie.

Nellie McKay – and her debut album – were not perfect. They were better than that. They were real. And in a year that saw seminal punk from Green Day (American Idiot) and seminal hip hop from Kanye (College Dropout, which came out the same day as Get Away From Me) that was enough to make it the best album of the year.

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