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POP MUSIC

McKay stands on principle

October 29, 2006|Richard Cromelin

Nellie McKay

"Pretty Little Head"

(Hungry Mouse)

* * * 1/2

THIS is the album that was supposed to come out a year ago on Columbia Records and speed the precocious singer-songwriter on her course from rising cult figure to big star. Instead, McKay and the company butted heads, with the label planning to release a 16-song CD and McKay insisting it issue her 23-song version or say bye-bye Nellie.

So here is McKay, with her full album and on her own new label, exchanging the marketing muscle of a major label for indie freedom and an enhanced reputation among her fans (if not Columbia's lawyers) as a maverick martyr for artistic integrity.

The album itself, in stores Tuesday, doesn't seem like enough to have caused all that fuss. At 65 minutes divided into two discs, it's not outlandishly long by today's standards, and while it would be better if shorter, the additional songs don't take her into any career-threatening weirdness.

Adding some range to the offbeat persona she presented in 2004's "Get Away From Me," McKay comes on as a Harlem Holly Golightly, a twentysomething social activist with a disarming mastery of pop vernacular -- pop in the broadest sense, embracing cabaret, show tunes, old standards and a bit of '70s rock in the vein of Elton John and Cyndi Lauper (a guest on the album, along with k.d. lang).

The opening "Cupcake" is irresistibly effervescent, with a Laura Nyro-like soul-pop lift. Playful, seductive Latin grooves arrive periodically, as do throwaways that are as slight as they are charming. From the sparest ballads to grand, theatrical productions, her voice has a husky, imperfect quality that keeps her more street kid than distant diva.

McKay applies her full passion and ambition to her social commentaries. Love occupies her attention to an extent, but it seems less urgent -- a diversion from issues such as animal experimentation ("Columbia Is Bleeding"), the gentrification of her childhood Harlem neighborhood ("The Big One") and gay marriage ("Cupcake").

These earnest and inventive pieces balance advocacy and artistry, and they're both challenging and entertaining.

McKay's sentiments might tend toward the overly earnest, but her creative instincts make it all seem like a walk in the park.

-- Richard Cromelin

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