One of the delights of “Get Away From Me,” Nellie McKay’s 2004 debut, was the fact that the album’s sophisticated, witty songs — which ran the Great American Songbook through a modern pop sensibility — was the work of a woman who was variously described as being anywhere between 19 and 22. On “Pretty Little Head,” due early next year from Columbia Records, McKay comes off at times as a passionate undergrad determined to let everyone know there’s cruelty in the world. At the Troubadour in the first of two Los Angeles shows previewing the new album, the response from an audience unprepared for McKay’s political convictions threw the young singer-songwriter off track.
Introducing “Columbia Is Bleeding,” one of “Head’s” most blatantly political songs, she asked the aud to sign an online petition protesting the Ivy League school’s animal testing policy. But her stage patter — spiraling bursts delivered in a scattered, breathy, Audrey-Hepburn-as-Holly-Golightly voice — lends itself to comedy (it’s easy to imagine her nailing the role of Pirate Jenny in the Broadway production of “Threepenny Opera” opening in April), and the audience tittered during her explanation. “This isn’t funny,” she protested. “You wouldn’t laugh at jokes about torture. You wouldn’t laugh at jokes about rape.”
The storm passed as she launched into a gleefully comic imitation of Dylan dueting with her on “We Had It Right,” one of the new album’s most charming melodies. But when she returned to the topic of vivisection, a member of the aud yelled for her to stop talking and sing. This really set her off. “This is my life, bitch,” she said, leading into a monologue about her problems with her label. If Fiona Apple has decided to lay off the onstage commentary, McKay seems more than happy to take up the slack.
Apparently, she wants the album to come out at 65 minutes, while Sony BMG is insisting it be released at 48. Turning more and more impassioned, tears welling up in her eyes, she conflated the argument over album length into proof of worldwide corporate malfeasance and got more and more wound up, concluding that “if this is the music business, I want out!” She seemed to have one foot off the stage but managed to rein herself in and continue performing.
The rest of the show — her first in Los Angeles with a backing band — was uneventful (although she did leave the stage near the end of her two hours to hand out photocopies of a magazine article recounting animal cruelty at LSU).
At this point, the band, made up of New York studio pros, still doesn’t seem completely comfortable, reading off charts and shaking their heads as McKay goes off on another verbal tangent. Their playing was fine, if unexciting and a little stiff.
McKay also seems most at ease when playing solo, especially on the lovely “Gladd,” a song whose lyrics could either be sung at a wedding or funeral.
McKay plays New York’s Makor on Monday and the Mercury Lounge on Tuesday. While you never know what she’s going to say, you know there will be fine songs in between the tantrums.