Nellie McKay's new album starts off with laughter — loud, hard laughter, the kind that at first sounds like a good time, until you it dawns on you that, hmmm, maybe whatever these people are laughing at isn't all that funny. And, of course, a sweetly played song that acidly comments on feminist-haters isn't funny. That contradiction, which gets you laughing and thinking, thinking and laughing, is what makes Nellie McKay so winning. The confidence with which McKay deploys her prodigious talent makes Obligatory Villagers her best album yet — and one of the best albums of the year.
On her previous two albums, 2004's Get Away from Me and 2006's Pretty Little Head, McKay reveled in the tension between lyrics that make biting critiques of the messed-up world we live in and music that hopscotched among the styles of yesteryear: big band, the great jazz songbooks, classic show tunes. Her one nod to modern music was when she rapped on tracks like Get Away's “Sari.” But even then, she subverted the genre, rhyming not about what a superior person she is but about the frustrations of living in a society with questionable values. To paraphrase Sinatra, she ate it up ("it" being popular culture) and spat it out: “Well now, I don't mean to offend/ Much/ Just comprehend/ When you're female and you're fenced in/ And Fen-phen'd to no end.” Those records were heavily praised for their ingenuity and wit — and rightly so — but at times they were a challenging listen. There was so much going on musically that playing these albums straight through felt like flying through McKay's mind, dodging the synapses as they zipped by.
Obligatory Villagers, on the other hand, is as creatively voracious as McKay's past efforts but hangs together wonderfully. Her old-fashioned influences are still there, so it's not so much an aesthetic development as McKay simply firming up her approach. “Overture” opens with some brisk trumpet playing, like a number from a Gene Kelly musical. “Politan” is a swaying bossa nova featuring summer-breeze vocals by Nancy Reed and some craggy crooning by Bob Dorough, both of them veteran jazz artists (although Dorough is perhaps best know for Schoolhouse Rock). “Zombie” is a 21st-century “Monster Mash.” But the songs are streamlined and sure, and the lyrics are more clever than ever. “Identity Theft” uses that indignant “Sari”-style rapping to race through a litany of complaints about everything from assimilation to Ivy League schools to Pluto's demotion from planethood. Witness the kooky wordplay: “Lookin for some kind of closure/ All I'm findin is Ray Bolger.”
Upon the release of her first album, Nellie McKay was hailed as the cat's meow (even if that cat did hiss at times). But we all know what often happens to the shining faces in those “Ones to Watch” features. With Obligatory Villagers, McKay proves she's got legs, and she knows how to use them.