Toronto
3 min

Nellie McKay is a twisted delight

But Norah Jones is as electrifying as Perry Como

GET AWAY FROM ME. And head over to Nellie McKay world. Credit: Xtra files

I find Norah Jones as electrifying as Perry Como. She’s a thumping bore. A ravishing face and sweet personality with nothing much to say musically or lyrically. I guess she’s lovely to listen to when sipping a chai latte while doing one’s taxes. But so are Enya and Yanni.



Album producer Arif Mardin has said of Jones, “People are ready for heartfelt musicÂ… listeners are looking for real artists.” Singing wimpy dull compositions accompanied by Vaseline-lensed ocean-view videos does not a real artist make. It makes them commercial. Tampon commercial? Norah Jones is as real as The Spice Girls. She just wears sensible shoes.



Jones’ new album, Feels Like Home, has a more folky, country flavour than her jazz-lite debut, 2002’s Come Away With Me. But it’s just as hollow and insipid. The songs are written by many, including Townes Van Zandt, Kathleen Brennan, Tom Waits, Lee Alexander and Jones. Her co-written collaborations are the more successful on the album. And that’s not saying much. The new single, “Sunrise,” is nice enough in that adult contemporary, radio-friendly way. “Looks like morning in your eyes/ But the clocks held 9:15 for hours.”



The song “Carnival Town” is hypnotic, to a point. Especially when the multi-tracked harmonies kick in and intone the word “lovely” over a nice swirl of acoustic guitar, viola and cello. “Did the clown make you smile/ He was only your fool for a while.”



Lee Alexander’s blue-grass number, “Creepin’ In,” is the standout – only because it’s a duet featuring Dolly Parton. Her voice is one of the most pure and beautiful that ever graced this planet. It’s awe-inspiring how effortlessly Parton breathes life into a song. “Creep on in/ Creep on in/ And once it has begun/ Won’t stop until it’s done/ Sneaking in.” Parton and Jones are delicious here.



This album is like one long meandering 40-minute tune. There are not enough stylistic shifts to keep me interested. All the compositions are way too similar and the arrangements need more zing. Jones’ piano playing is simple and pretty. She never gets to Frank Mills territory, thank God. Her voice is somewhat pleasant though she has no range and should work on emoting something – anything. I just don’t get her. Love, love, love. Blah, blah, blah.



**

Nellie McKay is a sassy badass. She’s a Harlem-raised 19-year-old piano playing singer/songwriter. Brilliantly bombastic and way clever.



Her debut is a double album entitled Get Away From Me. It’s insane. Rich in rhythms, the word play is divinely sarcastic and genius. On the album cover she looks like a young happy Gwen Verdon. But look on the bottom left corner: Parental advisory, explicit lyrics. You’ve been warned.



The styles change with every song (all written by her) and she pretty much masters all genres. Though I think her white girl rapping is the least successful, but not embarrassingly so.



“Send a breeze/ A pitbull’s yelp/ a tender squeeze/ A cry for help.” Those are the opening lines of “Manhattan Avenue,” a nice simple cabaret scorcher featuring a standard piano, bass, drum combo. It’s sexy fun.



If the Stepford Wives had a love theme it would be “I Wanna Be Married,” a sardonic, tongue-in-cheek song for the urban gal longing to be the clichéd suburban housewife. A harp and strings accompany McKay’s Betty Hutton tone and delivery, “I want to get married/ That’s why I was born.” Very funny. “I wanna pack cute little lunches/ For my Brady bunches.” Again, funny.



“Change The World” is a fast-paced song with intense marching drumbeats as McKay seems to spiral into insanity pondering how she should continue in this world. “God, I’m so German/ Have to have a plan/ Please Ethel Merman/ Help me out of this jam.”



McKay is Lana Turner in Doris Day clothing on “Won’t You Please Be Nice.” Her phrasing is very similar to Blossom Dearie. But Blossom never got this dark and rich with revenge. And she never had such a potty mouth. “If you don’t/ I’ll slit your throat/ So won’t you be nice,” or how about, “Give me head/ Or you’ll be dead/ Salute the flag/ Or I’ll call you a fag.”



The songs on this twisted delight deal with everything from a cat’s death to the struggle for inner peace in a turbulent world. There’s even a jaunty number about McKay’s “Clonie,” “Just day by day/ Our DNA/ Says the Olson twins got nothing on us.” Very Sid and Marty Krofft.



The album is produced and engineered by legendary Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. So it’s slick with character and he gives the brash moments humourous fanciful arrangements. McKay is damn good. She reminds me of the late great Kirsty MacColl. They’re both witty, music-lovin’ birds.



McKay is a gal dealing with the end of her teen years with such candour and true originality. It’s big band, Tin Pan Alley, cabaret, hip hop and sugary pop all done with respect and assertive proficiency. No doubt about it, this is her vision. Hilary Duff she ain’t.



FEELS LIKE HOME.

Norah Jones.

Blue Note. $14.99.



GET AWAY FROM ME.

Nellie McKay.

Columbia. $23.99.